Is buying experiences better than buying things? Not for everyone

Everybody is made happiest by purchasing experiences, right? A new study tells us to rethink our cliche.

A woman jumps in the sea. Was buying the beach vacation worth it? (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can rent it for a long time. Knowing this, a great deal of effort has been spent trying to find out how to maximize the happiness we get out of the money we spend. Lately, it has been almost cliché to mention how studies show buying experiences is better for happiness than buying things. However, new research reveals a glaring problem with that cliché.


The thing about things 

A paper recently published in Psychological Science by Jacob C. Lee, Deborah Hall, and Wendy Wood questions the methods of previous studies which tend to use relatively affluent college students as guinea pigs. The goal of the study was to see if the results of previous tests held up when less affluent people were included. 

The researchers asked their test subjects to answer questions about their income, job, and education level. The subjects were then categorized according to their answers to give a sense of their social class using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status

The three tests began. The subjects were first asked to recall a recent purchase of a material item and an experience. That purchase was then ranked on a scale showing how happy it made them and placed on a range from “definitely experiential” to “definitely object.” 

The data was clear, while the higher-class participants were made happiest by material purchases, the lower-class participants were made happiest by purchasing objects.

In the second test, the participants were randomly assigned to recall either a material or experiential purchase they had made and rate how happy it had made them. Again, the higher-class test subjects said they were made happiest by purchasing experiences while lower-class subjects favored material goods.

In the last test, the participants were again asked to recall either a material or experiential purchase, and then imagine that their income was either raised or lowered by 50%. They were then asked to consider how they would alter their budget given this change and how it would make them feel to have this shock to their finances occur.

After imagining that their finances had changed for a bit, they were then asked to consider how happy either a material or experiential purchase would make them. Some participants were told to think of the same items they had thought of at the start of the task and others were told to think of new ones they could make at their new, imagined, income level.

While the effect was minor, there was a tendency for people to favor buying experiences when they imagined their finances improving and buying goods when their condition worsened.

What does this all mean?

When money is tight, buying material things makes us happier than buying experiences. When we’re rolling in cash, it’s the other way around.  

Writer Juliet Hodges suggests that the findings relate to how much leisure time we have. The idea being that well-off people will need to buy experiences to fill it while worse-off people would want items that save time. This idea is based on several studies that show how much happier people are made by time-saving purchases.

It should be noted though that the study was based on people remembering how happy their purchases made them. This reduces the reliability of the study since memory can be faulty. However, the basic finding of the study is supported by the last test even without appealing to memory.  

So, what should I do if I’m in the lower class? 

Don’t think that you can’t be happy because you know buying experiences is irresponsible given your current condition. The best thing to do, from a purely cost benefits stance, is to buy the things you need. The happiness payoff will be just as good as if you had bought an overpriced night out instead.

Wasn’t this obvious? 

It seems kind of obvious that people who don’t have enough money for extravagant experiential purchases might get more happiness out of having certain things, some of which might be desperately needed. However, previous studies into this idea had not taken income levels into account and tended to have test subjects who were more affluent than the rest of the population.  

It is yet another example of a phenomenon that was only studied in certain groups; leading us to have an incorrect idea about how other people were affected. The tendency to use college students as guinea pigs happens so much there is even an acronym for the typical test subject: WEIRD.

Having more things doesn’t always equal more happiness, but not having anything isn’t much fun either. This paper reminds us that studies on how money can influence happiness must take care to remember people without money too. 

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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