Stephanie Rosenbloom at the New York Times challenges the foundational economic assumption that more is always better in a recent article, “But Will It Make You Happy?” Research has shown that people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than on acquiring more stuff:
On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.
If consumers end up sticking with their newfound spending habits, some tactics that retailers and marketers began deploying during the recession could become lasting business strategies. Among those strategies are proffering merchandise that makes being at home more entertaining and trying to make consumers feel special by giving them access to exclusive events and more personal customer service.
As a response to these trends, business have been trying to sell more “experiences” than just stuff. For example, Wal-Mart has responded by grouping items that families can use to share experiences at home: cooking out, home theaters, and games. They are really selling experiences. Research shows that other experiences such as vacations and sporting events yield a better “bang for the buck” than buying stuff.
Some argue that this is because we can reminisce about experiences, while new things quickly lose their allure. Also, it might be due to competing for status:
Alternatively, spending money on an event, like camping or a wine tasting with friends, leaves people less likely to compare their experiences with those of others — and, therefore, happier.
Conspicuous consumption certainly does seem to have a huge effect on happiness. However, the commodification of leisure and experiences can lead them to be vehicles for comparison also. How close are your seats to the stage or to the field? Which exotic beaches did you vacation to? How expensive was that wine you tasted?
In the film Happy, Roko Belic shows that “the one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.” Does building strong relationships require the commodification of leisure and “experiences” that we have to buy at Wal-Mart? Perhaps not. But it can help.