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.

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soundoff (207 Responses)
  1. Steve from Michigan

    'The interior joy we feel when we have done a good deed, when we feel we have been needed somewhere and have lent a helping hand, is the nourishment the soul requires....So many drift into the misery of indifference because they did not start out with the vital power that comes from helping others."
    – Albert Schweitzer April 4, 1909

    April 15, 2010 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply

      I love your quote. I think that sums it up perfectly. I would also humbly add that experiences that require some degree of mental involvement are more fulfilling than those that do not.

      January 7, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
  2. Kyle Law

    I disagree, it depends on the utilization of the material item that was purchased. For example, an Xbox 360 is something material and can seem selfish but if it's used to bring friends together one night for a fun night of gaming and pizza, that brings happiness and the person who purchased the Xbox is more liked for arranging a night with it. On the part where something like a car becoming just a means of transportation and that's it, it all comes down to what you make of it. I purchased a used manual car and I enjoy driving it everyday, if anything I will actually go drive just to drive for the fun of driving plus the fact it being manual makes it more exciting, plus if you like working on cars it gives you a hobby. One of the more happier moments I've had was purchasing a project and spending months working on it. That moment when you turn the key at the end and it starts up, is pure happiness for you and whoever else worked on it to get it to that point, plus the sense of self accomplishment. I don't think that it is the people that buy material objects are less happy and less liked, it's how those people use what they purchased and how much they put into it.

    April 15, 2010 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Gloria

    I totally agree. Besides, nobody can take away your experience while you can lose your possessions. Meanwhile you can share your experiences w your friends. Win-win : )

    April 15, 2010 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. uknow

    I have taken these studies to heart and now am trying the experience thing as objects are surely not the way to happiness. So far, so good.
    Taking small outings with my family is very satisfying and i am working towards a big one, a vacation in Hawaii, Aloha!

    April 15, 2010 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mr. Chambers

    Yes, we must not hold on to material possessions. Material gain is not a measure of your worth. It is the sacrifices that we can make that make that are for more important. This contradicts the general opinion in american culture. But we have much to learn as a species.

    April 15, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. mike

    If someone gets jealous of another person simply because they bought a new car or a new boat that's their problem. Not the person that bought the item. This article suggests that if one is successful and can afford nice things then you are indeed a bad person. Articles like this are just intended to make people that are less successful feel better about themselves. Which i believe is a major problem in todays society. When i was young and played little league baseball in the 60s only the team that won the championship got a trophy. Now days, all the teams get a trophy. This practice rewards poor performance and deminishes the hard work and efforts of those that played harder, practiced harder and deserved the trophy. What we get out of life is directly commensturate to what we put in to it. And you mention that experiences are more important and rewarding than having material things. That just doesn't make sense. I enjoy water skiing. That's an experience. But i couldn't enjoy that experience as often as i do if i didn't have a ski boat. A ski boat is a material thing. I also enjoy motorcycle riding. I couldn't enjoy that experience if i didn't have a motorcycle. I worked hard for those things. They're mine and i enjoy them on a regular basis. If others are jealous of what i have and dislike me for it then so be it. To me, that means they're not worth being my friends or nieghbors anyway. Frank Senatra once said, "Every man's happiness is his own responsibility". So Liz, get off your duff, work hard, buy some toys and enjoy life. You only get one life. Don't waste it writing crummy articles to compensate for not having a real job and being part of a real life. mike, SMSgt, USAF Retired

    April 15, 2010 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dan

    I would say that overall that is correct, but you can bet your butt that I have been jealous of the trips or experiences some of my friends have had. Trips to Barbados, Back packing across Europe...these all require funds to do and not everyone has the means.

    April 15, 2010 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. nycmusiclover

    I disagree with the findings in the study that people who enjoy experience over materialism are not "selfish" or "self-centered". The best times I've ever had have been for selfish reasons. Meeting women, dancing, drinking, vacations. 🙂

    April 15, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Gene

    "Anyone who thinks money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."
    Jackie Gleason

    April 15, 2010 at 14:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ryan

    Materialistic people may be less happy, but when the shine wears off of that shiny watch, you can always sell it to get part of your money back. Good luck selling meals and vacations.

    April 15, 2010 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Stan

    Did they stop to consider that the people who spent money on materialistic things were liked less because the people being interviewed about them were simply jealous? We are a very covetous society...

    April 15, 2010 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Frank

    Well since psychology is totally subjective I have to view this article as some-what interesting. Personally I'd rather have that new Porsche than just experience riding it.

    April 15, 2010 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. joe

    Nothing makes my happier than my diamond-encrusted grill.

    April 15, 2010 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Ryan M. Barnett

    Profound and true – and nobody needed an empirical study to prove it.

    Without question, those persons obsessed with material find themselves dissatisfied. rmbpcola.blogspot.com

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

    To Kyle Law,

    Your car analogy is a perfect example of what this article is referring to. Your purchases are hobbies, i.e. experiences. You bought a car and fixed it up. My hat is off to you, I think that's awesome! Much more awesome than some guy who buys a Ferari... don't you agree?

    April 15, 2010 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Tyrone Biggums

    I've read other studies that say the thing that brings you the most happiness is having dinner with good friends.

    Material items can bring you happiness, but only if you are grateful for them and don't take them for granted. Problem is..it's human nature to become used to something. Then you start taking it for granted.

    April 15, 2010 at 17:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. JAM15

    I completely disagree with the prevailing wisdom that what you get out of life is commensurate with what you put into it! I know plenty of people (myself included) who work hard, have integrity and are very compassionate to others and are of modest means. It seems that no matter how hard we work, we just cannot come out ahead financially.

    And, education or multiple degrees do not guarantee stellar income or net more financial opportunities. I love to have meaningful "experiences" but many of the things I love like shopping and traveling require money!!

    As long as one acquires material possessions honestly and do not place those acquistions on a higher pedestal than, say, love of family and respect for humanity, I see nothing wrong with materialism.

    April 15, 2010 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Cindy

    My sister-in-law is very materialistic and one of the unhappiest people I know.

    April 15, 2010 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Jen

    I agree wholeheartedly with the writer. This time last year I was laid off work during the dowturn of the economy. My shopping sprees for shoes, purses, and clothes stopped immediately as I had to learn to do without. A few months later 3 of my friends were laid off their jobs too. We spent alot of our time going for walks, renting cheap movies, cooking together and taking advantage of discount or free community events. I had more fun spending the time with my friends and becoming closer with them than I ever did when I was shopping for things I did not need. In fact, I come to realize the reason I was wasting money on materialistic things because it took my mind away from the job I hated and the friends I thought i didn't have. I am much more happier now that I know I have a support system and will remember this when I do find a job.

    All in good moderation tho. I sure would like to have a little extra cashflow so I can take a quick trip to Mexico 😉

    April 15, 2010 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Tusita

    One can drive a shiny Porsche & still do a lot of good things to people around you & doing a host of good deeds to make the world a better place. Just because one spend his wealth for a little enjoyment does not make him or her a bad person. It's what's in their hearts that truly count. One can enjoy finer things in life & still be a great giver. Actually people who have jealousies in their soul can be more damaging than a guy who enjoys life. There're a lot of people with evil hearts & they're the people making up stories about others. My opinion is how one was raised has a lot to do with this issue.

    April 15, 2010 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Nicole

    I completely disagree and think that their findings are not too surprising considering the subjects were poor liberal college students. Of course they do not like people who have things they would want as we are a very envious society. I see it as a waste to spend money on experiences instead of items I can enjoy for years to come. To me, fancy restaurants are literally the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet. I do take occasional vacations and dine out every now and then but prefer to save my money for the big ticket items that I can enjoy every day.

    April 15, 2010 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. M

    What? Kyle Law, that's still an experience. I agree with this article because while material things can be taken away, experiences can't.

    April 15, 2010 at 20:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. dave

    After facing several life-threateing diseases over the past few years, indeed the only things that means anything in my life are family and friends. All else falls away. That guy with the motorcycles and boats, all the best to you. it isn't an envy thing, it's an awareness thing. "Things" are fine, but they mean little in the end.

    April 16, 2010 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. john

    Finally a study (so that maybe people who have to have a study to tell them when to breath will listen) that shows what people have known for centuries. Now maybe people will stop focusing on having to have the latest new cell phone (which have done more to make us disconnected from each other and the experiences discussed in this article than they have to connect us) and focus on being truly with the people we're with.

    April 16, 2010 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. ms

    To the person who thinks that having a new car or ski boat is the measure of "success" I feel sorry for you. The true measure of success is in what kind of individual you are. Are you a good parent, spouse, community leader, neighbor and friend? I am thinking not if you get rid of people in your life you deem to be "jealous" of your hard work for your material gain. Are you also using some of your hard earned dollars to help those less fortunate than yourself? People that are poor are not necessarily that way because they dont work hard. You were given chances, options and guidance along the way in your life. Sounds to me like selfishness and those friends you dont think you need anyway might be out of your life for a reason other than they are jealous.

    April 16, 2010 at 09:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. El Kababa

    A nice vacation is not a material thing? A new bathing suit, recreational shopping at the local tourist traps, an overpriced seafood dinner, a few drinks, a tank of gas? A nice vacation is not materialistic? The hotel bill, eating our, gas, recreational shopping for days at a time?

    Giving the money to a struggling relative or to charity would be an example of non-materialistic behavior.

    What the study shows is that if you buy a bracelet while on vacation you will be perceived more positively than if you buy a bracelet in your home town.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. gcom

    This is just opinion based on the people who were asked. Personally I think less of poeple who waste thousands of dollars on trips across the globe. I view people who go on exotic vacations or cuises as selfish. But then again, nobody asked me because I don't fit the demographic of individuals that were asked. This study was probably financed by the travel industry!!!

    April 16, 2010 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Dawn

    I don't agree with this article, having the means for material things is one thing, what you make of it is another. I like to travel, i've ben to Paris,France all the caribbean islands, and i like designer pocketbooks, my point is i worked hard to obtain these trips and was able to buy these bags. Most people that have something negative to say is simply jealous!

    April 16, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. zoobee

    Traveling is the best example of this. With traveling abroad or to other destinations it brings someone memories that no object can take place. It allows you to meet people from all around the world, learn about cultures and appreciate life more. The world really is very beautiful and the people are too.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Nate

    Blah, blah, blah...If you've been to one major city you've been to them all. If you've been to one beach you've been to them all. Experiential people are just jealous cause they blew $5000 on a vacation that was over in two weeks, and my $5000 bought a motorcycle that I get to enjoy for many years!

    April 16, 2010 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Marc

    Depends on the material or experience in question, I guess. My instruments and video cameras are materials, but they bring me fulfillment everyday because I can use them to create new things or experiences, especially experiences that I can share with others. I mean, I remember my trip to Rome fondly, but it doesn't bring me satisfaction and fulfillment everyday by thinking back upon it. Same thing with that expensive meal at that upscale restaurant. I mean it was good, but the experience is just as fleeting as the enjoyment of any material possession I can acquire, if not more. I'd prefer a nice surfboard that I can go out and ride the waves on everyday and experience the wonders of the surf and nature. I find many of the articles written these days to be written like assignments, where you take one view and spit something out so you can make some money. Not many of these so called journalists or commentators care to truly probe the depths of truth and see the totality of the subject upon which they are writing. Nice try, but dig a little deeper.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Jim Bob

    Of course if you like objects better than people, you treat people like objects, you will not be very personable. People tend to treat you the way you treat them.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Dan

    I would guess this study is open to bias, lacks controls and it did not have the power to detect nor found statistical significance. Then again, I haven't read it.

    Everyone is materialistic. Funny, when I want to go on vacation they don't take grass clippings. I also would venture that if someone said, "I got $50! Then I took a walk in a park with it in my pocket," people would call them strange or boring for telling such a story. Purchases are purchases; there is no other use for currency than making purchases or building more currency. I would love the experience of caring for a 100 year old bonsai. Sadly, that could cost me $10,000 or more and if I purchase it I'm "materialistic." The two are inseparable.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. fuyukko

    way too many generalizations in this article

    You don't need money to 'experience' things. Beaches, trails, parks are all free. So is just getting exercise out doors. If I do get 50.00 I'm likely to spend it on entertainment not material goods. Entertainment does increase my happiness.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Jason

    Please send all of your material things to me

    April 16, 2010 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Lance

    I agree, I got divorced because my ex-wife was very materialistic and had to keep up with the Jones. It is not healthy, physically and mentally.

    Happiness starts from with-in, not what people think of you at all times and what you look like on the outside, especially what you are wearing like top name brands.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Jason

    Those who are disagreeing with this article simply aren't intelligent enough to understand it. The article merely was to present the difference between people who put emphasis on and value material objects as opposed to people who don't put emphasis on materials. The study concludes that people who don't put as much emphasis on materials and don't value them as much, are happier. It has nothing to do with all this garbage you people speak of relating to jealousy. I have a background in psychology and am also affluent, so stop negatively criticizing a good article.

    On a side note: It is pretty ironic how it's all of the people defending materialism providing negative and "depressing" criticism.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Lia

    It seems to me that this is a backwards study.

    I don't think it's that people *view* others to be more or less likeable depending on whether they purchased something tangible or some experiential. More likely, the types of people who would choose something experiential are simply more likeable, more open and more outgoing. They, (we), are more open to connecting with others, rather than acquiring.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Mike H

    I disagree with this article as far as happiness is concerned. I will tell you I'm a car buff. And I have a BMW sports coupe that is simply the best car I've ever had. Did it cost a lot of money? Yes. Is it materialistic? Yes. But does it bring me joy to hit the open road and drive and explore. In this case the materialistic "item" enhances my life and helps me to "experience".

    In addition, I live my life for myself and my family and my close friends. Frankly, I work hard and I play hard and I do not care if other people like me or not. I'm "happier" being myself – even if I do have a nice house and a nice car. Regardless of what other people think.

    So to me this is another attempt by people with an "agenda" – in this case some researchers – to steer us closer to a socialist mentality. Where we are all expected to "share" and not over achieve. Instead of celebrating the independence and individually that America is built on.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Mrkampret

    Bla...bla...bla...material = status in society. How can you get a decent girl without having nice house, car, etc. This is stupid.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. DMM from ND

    So when you're old and in the nursing home, without any of your possessions because there's no room, what are you gonna do? I'd rather relive my life experiences and smile to myself, thinking I've done something with my life. And who doesn't love a good experience story that can be written down and be a part of the family history? Most material things eventually become "junk". However there is a place for items of sentimental value handed down from generation to generation.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. sentry99

    I don't believe that materialistic people are less liked, if this were the case, then most people would not be aspiring to join these ranks. People will say one thing in an interview, and actually do something entirely different.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. karl larson

    nice to see my lifetime of being a (despised) "hippy" VINDICATED

    April 16, 2010 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. andy smith

    This study is a waste of time and the conclusion is obvious- No one likes a materialistic person, and clearly those types of people are trying to fill a void.

    Why not try a study to see if people who drive huge Hummers while talking on the phone irritate other drivers?

    April 16, 2010 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Kelly

    Hm. I somewhat agree with the findings. A few years back my husband and kids surprised me with a brand new Mustang for Christmas. Although it gave me internal gratification driving it I eventually felt somewhat selfish and spoiled and being the giving type I didn't feel good about it anymore, at least not at this point in my life with two young kids. As many moms do, I rarely buy new things for myself and felt the purchase was unnessessary. After three years I sold it and decided to put in a pool in our backyard for the entire family to enjoy. I believe the memories we create each summer with family and friends will be priceless.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. kvh

    This is just subtle socialist brainwashing brought to you courtesy of cnn. The authors are trying to get you to believe that it's just somehow wrong to own anything. " A good comrade would want to share her allottment with her sisters not spend it all on herself." And you people with your "Ooh I feel so good...I've been so moral..." rantings are just blind, misguided sheep being led to the pen. And what else would you expect these communist activist journalists to write?

    April 16, 2010 at 11:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Kevin

    This is silly. We experience everything. Even buying material items. Anything you can think of is both material and experience all in one. We like to simplify it by saying its either this or that. Self-centered? How is the experiance of going to a concert not self-centered? Let me guess, people don't have experiances for their own happiness, but for others? Please. Maybe we should all invite our friends with us to experiance our shopping for televisions and explain to them, "this isn't becuase I want to make you jeaolus or envy me, it's becuase I want you to help me pick out a new television". Ah, what great memories.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. spifflove

    Ladies, who would you rather date?

    A. Man who bought million dollar beach home
    B. Man who bought ferrari but lived in apartment
    C. Man who lives in moms basment but went to Paris
    D. Man who loves to play X-box and really has incredible experiences with and memories. You know, "just like Avatar!"

    April 16, 2010 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Lester

    In my previous employment, I was shunned for driving a Mercedes-Benz and only being 25 years old. My old bosses and colleagues when they found out what I was driving would not communicate as much anymore and would not hang out with me for lunch as we used to before. It kind of made them dislike me a bit, and had a harder time achieving acceptance with them. I personally think people are stupid sometimes. Just because my father loves me and works his butt off to give everything he never had, doesn't make me a bad person. It's not my fault that my father is successful and allows me to buy the things I want. Today, that's why I have two cars, one for the job, in case anyone gets jealous, and my weekend car.

    April 16, 2010 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. matt Castro

    As others have intimated its all about the context of the material object or the experience. Would people think negatively of a person who bought a boat so he could teach his son how to sail like his father taught him. Conversely people would not think highly of a person who took a trip to Europe just so hed have a picture of himself with the Eiffel Tower to put on the desk.
    Of course it is also about the stereotypes of object-obsession.

    While the article glosses over the finer points of the issue I do believe in the argument intrinsically. But I think a 'material object' is something that has no particular use, not a car, a camera, or game-system. Something more like jewelry, knick-knacks for the house,

    April 16, 2010 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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