What will make you feel grateful this season: Experiences

Alice G. Walton | Nov 18, 2016

Feeling grateful may be more a product of the experiences we have than the things we buy, according to research by Cornell University PhD candidate Jesse Walker, Chicago Booth postdoctoral fellow Amit Kumar, and Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich.

“Our work focuses on the distinction between experiential purchases—money that people spend on doing, on things such as travel, meals out, and tickets to performances—and material purchases—money that people spend on having, on possessions such as clothing, jewelry, furniture, and gadgets,” says Kumar. The gratefulness piece is their latest argument in favor of experiences, which they’ve already suggested in earlier research leave people happier and more satisfied.

In a series of experiments, the researchers examine these ways of spending money, in part by asking participants to recall material and experiential purchases they’d made. In one experiment, where participants were asked to recall both types of purchases, 63 percent of participants reported that they felt more grateful for the experiential purchase. In a follow-up study, participants were much more likely to say they felt grateful after making an experiential purchase than a material one. On a scale from 1 to 9—with 1 being “not at all” and 9 being “very much”—people who recalled experiences ranked their gratefulness at an average of 8.17, while people who recalled material purchases ranked theirs at an average of 7.15.

The phenomenon was also apparent in the real world: the team looked at customer reviews at various websites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp for reviews of experiences, and CNET and Amazon for reviews of material purchases. Two coders rated 1,200 reviews on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 expressing the most gratitude. Reviewers, the researchers find, were more likely to use language involving gratitude when reviewing an experiential purchase.

“Our studies show that reflecting on experiential purchases inspires more gratitude than reflecting on material purchases,” says Kumar. “In other words, people are more grateful for what they've done than for what they have.”

Feeling grateful is linked to a number of benefits, such as health and well-being. But the researchers wanted to see how recalling an experiential rather than a material purchase might also affect how people behave toward one another.

Participants played an economic game in which they had to decide how to divvy up $10 between themselves and another player. Those who’d been asked to recall experiential purchases before playing the game gave nearly $4, on average, to the other player, while people who’d been asked to recall a material purchase gave closer to $2.75. 

“When people think about their experiential purchases rather than their possessions, they end up being more generous to others,” says Kumar. “This is intriguing because it suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply not only to the consumers of those purchases themselves, but to others in their orbit as well.”