Why Experiences Inspire More Gratitude than Stuff

As the holiday shopping season begins, spending on a trip instead of buying the newest electronic device could make everyone more thankful.

People are more grateful for what they’ve done than what they have, and that gratitude can lead to greater generosity toward others, according to new research.

Amit KumarIn the new study, "Cultivating Gratitude and Giving Through Experiential Consumption," Amit Kumar, a post-doctoral research fellow at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Cornell University’s Jesse Walker and Thomas Gilovich, find that feelings of gratitude develop more often when people reflect on experiential purchases, such as vacations or tickets to events, than when they reflect on gadgets, furniture or clothes they’ve purchased.

Reflecting on gratifying experiences also leads to more subsequent altruistic behavior than thinking about significant material possessions, the researchers found. In other words, when people are grateful for experiences, they treat the other people better as well.

The study was published online and is forthcoming in the journal Emotion.

“We know a sense of gratitude carries a number of benefits with it, so how can we increase the likelihood of having these feelings? One step people can take that isn’t very difficult to implement is shifting some investments away from ‘stuff’ and towards experiences—doing so will likely make one feel more grateful,” Kumar says.

Gratitude has been widely linked with better individual physical and psychological health and happiness.

In a series of six experiments, the researchers set out to examine how material consumption and experiential consumption affect feelings of gratitude.

In one experiment, the researchers surveyed 1,200 online customer reviews on popular websites for words expressing gratitude, and found that consumers are more likely to spontaneously mention feeling grateful for experiences they purchased than for material goods they bought.

 Mean ratings of gratitude expressed in customer reviews on material product-review sites and experiential review websites (light bars) in Study 3.

Another study was presented as a memory task in which participants were asked to recall either a significant material purchase or a significant experiential purchase. They were then asked to play an economic game in which they were assigned to be the “dictator” and allocate money between themselves and someone else whom they would never meet.

Those participants who had reflected on experiences rather than material purchases were significantly more generous to others and kept less for themselves than did those in the group who reflected on possessions. One explanation for that behavior, Kumar says, is that people feel more socially connected when they reflect on experiences, but don’t experience the same levels of connection after considering significant possessions. “If people feel closer to other humans, they may end up treating others better. If there’s a way to make people feel more connected to others in general, this could lead to more altruistic behavior,” he says.

The findings have implications for policy makers and community leaders looking to bring people together. For example, community investment in public parks or funding the arts could make people more likely to take part in experiences, and that could lead to people treating those around them better.

The study authors conclude that a “society that makes it easier for its citizens to have satisfying experiences is likely to reap the benefits of a more grateful and altruistic outlook.”