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April 15th, 2010
12:08 PM ET

Materialistic people less happy, less liked

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Let's say you get a check for $50 for your birthday. Would you spend it on something material, like a watch or a bracelet, or an experience, like a day at the beach or nice dinner?

Research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than material possessions. That's because we become accustomed to objects - after a few weeks or months, that shiny new car is just a means of getting around - but remembering activities can give us pleasure indefinitely. Read more about those studies

Now, pioneers of those ideas have demonstrated that people who pursue happiness through experiences are better liked by others than those who are more materialistic. Their new study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Leaf Van Boven, psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues gave undergraduate students a national survey, which they used in five experiments to test their ideas.

In one of them, participants were told about people who had bought a material object or a life experience. Researches found that when the undergraduates learned about someone making a material purchase, this caused them to like that person less than a different person who purchased something experiential.

The authors concluded that people tend to have negative stereotypes about materialistic people. Participants asked to describe a materialistic person often used words such as "selfish" and "self-centered." When they described a experiential person, adjectives such as "altruistic," "friendly" and "outgoing" came up, the authors said.

Study co-author Thomas Gilovich, professor and chairman of the psychology department at Cornell University, has pointed out in the past that comparing recent material purchases with friends generates more jealousy than trading stories about recent vacations. Material purchases can be compared physically - one person's television can be objectively bigger and brighter than her friend's - whereas each experience is unique and precious in its own way to the individual.

For those who by nature enjoy buying things, the authors recommend a change of pace. Given that experiences not only bring more happiness, but also social approval, a materialistic person would benefit from investing more in experiences and less in objects, the theory goes.

Watch Van Boven discuss the research online here.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Gonzalo Vega

    haha duh but again an article like this does remind me that my understanding of life is not the same for another person and therefore some may take more time to realize the purpose of life, we must not be selfish and be altruistic as it states in the article, I agree we SHOULD not need an empirical study to prove this but it is unselfish of us to allow other people to learn from this study and possibly wake up and change their lives for the better. Kyle Law I do agree with you that focusing our energy through objects can be fulfilling, a boat ride with some friends on the lake in WI for example (represent), lol but when you are able to focus that type of energy without material objects then my friend, the impossible becomes the possible. I myself still need a means to focus my energy, whether through sport, or meditation, or music. The closer we get, the more the path becomes clear and overwhelming joy fills your mind and body.

    April 16, 2010 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Duo

    The article isn't about materialistic people having more money than experiential people. It's about the way that money is spent. A lot of people posting are thinking that the experience costs nothing. Someone who spends $2000 on a trip to Spain will probably be happier than someone who spent that $2000 on a TV or notebook, because material things don't last forever and experiences give you a better outlook on life and help you gain new perspectives. Ultimately, most of the things you buy in life won't last, but when you're old, if you have experience, you'll just have a better general outlook on things and life than a lot of other people. You'll be the type of person who can say, "This is what it was like" versus the people who say, "I wish I had a chance to do that." Materials won't help you understand the world.

    April 16, 2010 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. MidWestKev

    Purchasing items (material things) stimulates the economy. Everyone should love that!

    April 16, 2010 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Lou

    To PDX CubFan:
    It is understandable why you live by the illusion that happiness is dependent on your cars. You probably also live by the illusion that the Cubs will win the world series!

    April 16, 2010 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Cassie

    American culture breeds sick materialism. I have a cousin who actually has no idea how he looks or sounds to others when he spends all his time fantasizing out loud about the specific car he dreams of owning, the TV, the house... To him, it makes him more attractive and interesting that he dreams of owning these things, of being wealthy. He has no idea that most people around him think he's shallow, an empty husk of a person who can't seem to appreciate the beauty of the world around him. He laughs and makes fun of people who help others in need, who give away their money or who "waste their time" doing charitable work. I wish I could say my cousin was the exception, and while he may be in a minority, just think about the people you know who are under the age of 24, and, sadly, I think you may realize you know at least a handful of people just like my cousin. It says a lot about us that this is the new generation.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Idaho Spud

    I agree with Duo... who actually gets the article (most people who disagree on here are defending their material goods; by the way, XBoxes ruin relationships due to addiction). I have lived on $8000-$24000/year due to my choice in profession (teaching), and not only do I love to go to work, I am very happy with what little I have: a used SUV, a cozy apartment, a loving boyfriend, and great memories. We are very happy, and it's exciting to purchase things we save up for, such as a new camera. And as a result, we take care of our things, eat only non-processed food.

    My parents make around $200,000/year, and have everything they've ever wanted: quarter-million dollar home, boat, snowmobiles, expensive cars, trips to Italy, etc. and they are so miserable. They complain all the time about how horrible life is, each other is (they always argue about each others' purchases), and they can't figure out why their children despise visits with them.

    Happiness is not material possessions (talk to anyone who's lost everything in a fire) or a destination: it's a method of life you choose.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. MarcEvans

    I see nothing wrong with successful people or how they spend their money. I am not wealthy at the moment but in fact unemployed. Regardless of where you are in life you have to be thankful for what you have and everything else will fall into place.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. rjp3

    Hey Mike - first I could care less you were in the Air Force - so were the low lifes in my family.

    Second – you basically are two obnoxious to realize you agree with the writer. You are buying things that bring you EXPERIENCES.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. sam

    This is every bit true. What I find hard to believe is that it took a bunch of Ivy legue phd types to say so before the rest of dumb ass America will believe it.. Why didn't they ask my 9 year old neice?
    She learned that shit from the same place I did, our PARENTS and grandparents.
    Geez, get a life and a real study subject that would be helpful to mankind instead of reafirming what most WISE, experiened people know.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. scram

    Its the braggy people who are disliked. The type of person who spins any conversation around in order to brag about their new car or has to top another person's story about a place that they went which was more exotic or more expensive etc. A person who talks about their trips and experiences in a non-competitive way is of course, much more likeable but the person who says things like "Florida is nice but have you been to Tortola" is annoying.
    Also people who repeatedly bring up where they went to college 30 years later are also less likeable. People like this are insecure and immature and disliked. Be normal and calm down and do good things for others. Showing off what you have only shows that you are insecure and vapid. If you just go about life appreciating what you have and not discussing it, you'll be much more likeable. The end.

    April 16, 2010 at 15:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Matt

    "What a biased article! Since man was known to set foot on earth, it is a materialistic object or device which makes him or her stand out in a crowd of peers. Without that object or device, what is there to talk about?..."

    Wow. You're clearly just not getting it. And I feel bad for you if you don't think that life is worth living without having lots of "things" and spending lots of money.

    Nobody will deny that not having enough resources to meet your basic needs will make you unhappy. Being extremely poor is no fun. Money definitely buys happiness up to a point.

    But it's not really possessions themselves that make someone happy. If anything, it's the experiences that are enabled by having an object that actually makes you happy - the BBQ with your friends (grill), the Super Bowl party (TV), the fishing trip (boat).

    Spending money on a "thing" primarily for the experiences you'll have with that "thing" is different than just buying a "thing" so you can own it or spending a lot more money on something just for status (like buying a $50,000 BMW instead of a $5,000 used domestic; both will get you to work or on a road trip). I'm a skier; I've spent tons of money on ski gear, but I do that because I love to go skiing, not because I derive pleasure from having a fancy pair of skis in my basement.

    "The article isn't about materialistic people having more money than experiential people. It's about the way that money is spent."

    Exactly.

    The point of research like this is that if I had to choose between buying a new, fancy pair of skis or going on an amazing ski trip, the ski trip will make me happier in the long run (even if I'd feel really cool for a while on the new hot skis.) And it may even make people like me more. :-)

    April 16, 2010 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. KEO

    I don't understand the either/or concept of this study.
    Either you spend money on material goods or an experience?
    How about the experience of buying the material goods?
    I actually enjoy shopping for sales, using coupons, buying on clearance everything from groceries to clothes to going to restaurants.
    You also have the experience of shopping for the trip you are going to take, either through books or online, and you have to buy tickets, suncreen, weather-appropriate clothing or whatever the "experience" entails.
    You have to first buy the car that you use to drive to have the experience of hiking in the mountains or going white-water rafting.
    I view all of this as inter-related.

    April 16, 2010 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. john shuster

    There are no pockets in burial shrouds-old irish proverb

    April 16, 2010 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Andre

    With 53 years of experience on this earth, i have come to one good
    conclusion: You're never gonna be totally happy. The more stuff
    you have, the more responsibilities your stuck with. So yes i kinda
    agree that materialistic people are less happy. They got so much
    stuff they are continuously multitasking.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Cynthia

    People tend to compare themselves with one another. The only reason why experience people are liked more is because those people being asked probably didn't like that the materialistic people had more than they did. Jealousy I tell ya. I have friends that own many materialistic things and they are just as great as those that don't.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. lbad

    Do you own your things or do they own you? If there is anything I have learned from the recession is to not let my things own me. My father and a lot of men and women in the baby boomer generation let their things own them. He is having to come out of retirement and buy a business to keep things afloat as a result of mortgages, car payments, etc. You can't take your things with you when you die. You can pass them on to your children but I don't want to work my whole life away. There is a world out there that I would like to see.

    Maybe some people don't see things my way or the way the article does. It doesn't matter to me. It takes different things or experiences to make different people happy. But at the same time just because you have something I don't doesn't automatically mean I am jealous of you. It is quite pompous of people to think that way. Yes, it is a status symbol but it also symbolizes that the object might own you. You might have to stay in that job you hate to pay for whatever it is, you might spend long hours at work, you might be locked in to working not for yourself but for your things. No matter. I know what I want and don't want.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Mary

    "To what does it profit a man to gain the world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?" Jesus

    April 16, 2010 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ron

    I think its interesting that people say this article "is true" or "this article is not true". Both positions depend on a persons ideas. Ideas are not scientific proof of anything- they are only your ideas! However, this article does open up a way for the forum to further emphasize the us against them blah blah blah.
    Give 100 people new watches and they'll tell you different things about what it means to them. Give 100 people a trip to the same place, they'll have different experiences. Give 100 people a forum to talk about what's right or what's wrong and the real problem becomes evident.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Chris

    Relax people, they didn't say that materialistic people are worse. I also read nothing that implies consumption being mutually exclusive from an experience. Your experience could be spending the summer going to classic car shows with your friends before purchasing that classic for 50k.

    I think the knee-jerk reaction of some says way more than anything in the study.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. seth

    I am materialistic. I am very depressed about this.

    April 16, 2010 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. john

    This is in response to Dawn's comment. Hon, you're wrong. While it may be nice to have those things, it's not (hopefully) what makes a person. You've made it. Made what? Hookers work hard too so what? I say that because most people work hard and if you think "making it" means you've just made money then you've missed a great deal. People aren't as jealous of you as you think. People may be saying negative things because of how you act not because they're jealous.
    I don't mean to be nasty but my prayer is that you come to realize that their's more to life than just having things. Things are nice. Their great but there is just so much more in addtion to things.

    April 16, 2010 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Zebula

    Kyle Law, I agree with you, but you made the author's point. The x-box game is the tool that facilitates the groups' experience, so I would say it's the same thing. I would also add to the list of adjectives describing people who buy experiences: intelligent.

    April 16, 2010 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Paul

    I think a lot of your people are reading way too much into this research. It was a study looking at a handful of variables that probably have narrow operational definitions to ensure good construct validity. Also, it's dealing with people's perceptions of others. It's inferring that people view others who spend money on experiences more favorably than those who spend their money on tangible materialistic objects. It's not inferring whether or not people who spend money on experiences rather than material objects are more happy.

    Also, it looked at students. If it's good research and the students were randomly selected from a diverse set of economic and social backgrounds, the findings of the student sample can probably be safely generalized to a population of similar people. However, there may be external validity issues if you're trying to generalize it to other age groups and socio-economic groups who may have been socialized to place greater emphasis on obtaining material items and status symbols. Plus, there are always going to be people who don't fit neatly cleanly in the bell curve, so of course you're always going to think of examples of people who are counter to the study's findings.

    Penguin wrote "How did this study account for the acquisition of something like art?
    Art IS an experience and support of the arts enables artists to create more."

    If you're analyzing these findings through a Maslowian perspective, it could be argued that the tangible form of art transcends its material manifestation and is related to the higher steps on the hiearchy of needs and the B Values. That of course is probably more of a philosophical discussion rather than a scientific discussion (as it always is when Maslow gets discussed). Again, you'd have to find the original peer-reviewed source of the study. I imagine the researchers took good care in operationally defining what constitutes material items.

    April 16, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Bec

    Ironically, we should become 'experiential' because it is better for us AND it's more socially acceptable...isn't that just another form of materialism?

    April 16, 2010 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Walter

    So why don't you just travel and buy a bunch of stuff on the trip. Dream big and never compromise

    April 16, 2010 at 19:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Caroline

    I'm reading this article on my new IPAD. It is so sweet I am going to stay home all night and play with it. Thank you Apple for making me feel so good inside.

    April 16, 2010 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Faith M.

    This isn't open-ended at all... First, $50 will not get you far today... Second, where does everyone else fit in that wouldn't do either of the two options?

    I personally would spend that on food for my family or other household necessities like toilet paper, etc.

    This question is ridiculous assuming that everyone is on great terms and financially stable.....

    I think they need to go do this study where the employment rate is slim to none.

    April 18, 2010 at 02:18 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 30, 2010 at 00:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. sonia lorenzo

    Talking about vacation I am very materialyst because the onlything I want now is for Gregory Barsh from Pennsylvania to send me money he ripoff from me when I rented his vacation home at 159 Dubonnet Rd, Fl Keys, He never return the $1,000.00 security deposit. Now some people and I ( he used same practice with others) are very depress. Beware!

    October 24, 2010 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. kevin

    Well I can't house my kids in an experience, can I? A trip to the islands instead of a new 42" LCD TV – but what will I watch when I come back home? Me thinks those seeking experiences are the ones that have all the possessions they desire. My car just broke. It'll be nice to think about my grand vacation when I'm hitch hiking to work.

    January 9, 2011 at 01:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. BBB

    Just think about what you need to have to survive, not what you want to have. It's a difference!
    Besides people that want to buy lots of brand name materials are the one that are usually lonely and want to get attention from others or gain social status. Unfortunately, they just chase people away more with their materialistics problem.

    April 25, 2011 at 18:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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    You don't understand what it's like to be me. I have my stuff to keep me happy so that way, I'm not upset. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm not a materialistic person.
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