Experiences vs. Possessions: You Are What You've Done, Not What You Own

Picture of the beach
A walk on the beach is an experience you will use to define who you are.
In the last few years psychology research (e.g. Carter & Gilovich, 2010) has proven what many of us have long suspected: that experiences (vacations, events with friends, etc) make people happier than buying and owning stuff (computers, clothes, etc). But more recent research by the same duo (Carter & Gilovich, 2012) shows that the experience vs. possession difference goes further than they thought.
Why are experiences more important? — In their newest reserach Carter and Gilovich wanted to find out why we value experiences over possessions. Their theory was that people use experiences to define their sense of self more than they use possessions. This proved to be true. People in their study talked about their experiences more than possessions when they told their “life stories”. When talking about purchases and possessions they were more likely to feel that a purchase was an indicator of who they were if they described it in terms of their experience with the possession rather than the physical quality of the item itself.
Experiences give more info — The value of experiences to understand went beyond themselves. Participants in the study  felt that knowing what another person had experienced would give them more information and insight into who they really are than knowing what they bought.
Experience = more satisfaction — And lastly, the researchers conclude that it is because people cling to the memory of important experiences that makes them more satisfied with experiences compared to possessions.
Thinking about the results of this research the following ideas come to mind:
  • If you are marketing a product, put emphasis on what experiences you will have with it rather than what it will look like/feel like/ be like to own it.
  • If you are collecting purchasing info about target clients (as has been in the news lately with questions about privacy) you’d be better off to know what people’s purchases imply about the experiences they are having rather than just inferring from the data what they own.
  • The user experience of a product is more important than we think. It’s not just the idea that the product should be easy to use/ interesting. The EXPERIENCE part of user experience is not just a fancy word to use. People remember and evaluate, and even cherish experiences, even with technology.
  • Customers may resonate more with a brand if they can get a sense of what the organization has DONE, not just what products or services they sell.
What do you think? What are the implications that we define sense of self through experience more than possessions?
And if you like to read the research:
Carter, Travis J.;Gilovich, Thomas
I Am What I Do, Not What I Have: The Differential Centrality of Experiential and Material Purchases to the Self.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Feb 27 , 2012,  doi: 10.1037/a0027407
Carter, Travis J.; Gilovich, Thomas. The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010; 98 (1): 146 DOI:10.1037/a0017145

The Science of Happiness, Part 3: What commuting, graduate degrees and being single have in common

Chart of the dowjones and happiness
Correlation Between the Dow Jones and Happiness

WARNING: The following discussion is about the correlation between happiness and many other factors. But it’s just correlation. The factors below are correlated with happiness, but that does not mean they CAUSE happiness. “Correlation does not imply causation”.

Now that I’ve posted the warning, I can talk about some of the interesting correlations between happiness and other things. Such as:

  • Extroverts are happier than introverts.
  • Optimists are happier than pessimists
  • Married people are happier than single people
  • People who attend religious services regularly are happier than people who do not
  • People who have a college degree are happier than people who do not have a college degree BUT
  • People with advanced degrees are LESS happy than people with just a bachelor’s degree
  • People who have sex are happier than people who don’t have sex
  • People who are busy are happier than people who say they have too little to do
  • People are happier the older they get
  • The more someone commutes the LESS happy they are — in fact commuting is one of the largest sources of stress and unhappiness there is. The length of the commute is directly connected to happiness. The more minutes of commuting = more unhappiness.
  • People are happier when they feel they can predict what is happening — hence the chart above that shows that when the Dow Jones dropped unexpectedly, happiness dropped, but when people realized that it was going to be a bumpy ride then it stopped affecting their happiness
  • People are happier when they live in close proximity to happy people (not just in your house, but including the neighborhood).

I have a Ph.D., but I work out of my house. Maybe the two cancel each other out?

What do you think about these correlations?

Here’s the references:

Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss, Twelve, 2008.

Fowler, J. H.; Christakis, N. A (3 January 2009). “Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study” (PDF). British Medical Journal 337 (768): a2338. doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338PMC 2600606PMID 19056788.

Graham, Carol, Soumya Chattopadhyay, and Mario Picon (2010), “Does the Dow Get You Down? Happiness and the U.S. Economic Crisis”, mimeo, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, January.

 

The Science of Happiness, Part 2: Do You Live In A Happy Country?

Map of the WorldIn Part 1 of this series on the Science of Happiness, I wrote about a happiness set point.

This is Part 2, where we take a look at the relationship between happiness and geography.

Is where you live correlated with how happy you are? —  The answer is yes. But it is a complicated answer. There is a lot of research on the relationship between happiness and geography. As you might imagine, the results depend at least partially on which questions you ask. If you ask people how satisfied they are with their life, and how they felt about the previous day, then you get the data that Forbes reported on from Gallup. The top “happiest” countries according to Gallup are:

  1. Denmark
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden
  5. The Netherlands

at the bottom of the list of 155 countries are:

  1. Sierra Leone
  2. Cambodia
  3. Comoros
  4. Burundi
  5. Togo

On the Gallup list the United States is #14 and the UK is #17

(If, instead of asking people you measure things like income, access to education, etc, you get very different data, in other words, objective measures don’t agree with subjective measures. A great source of objective measures is the UN’s Human Development Indicators).

Gross National Happiness — In his book, The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner covers the research on happiness and geography, with a bit of satire thrown in. He travels to several of the countries at the top of the list, a few in between, and a few at the bottom, and writes about his adventures, including his visit to Bhutan where they invented and use a GNH (Gross National Happiness) index to make policy decisions instead of the GNP (Gross National Product) or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Trust is the Key — Weiner summarizes the research this way: The more the people in a country trust their government, the higher up they are on the happiness scale. Another strong factor is the amount of family and social ties that the people in that country have.

Time to move to Denmark? — What do you think? Should we all go move to the Scandinavian countries that rank high? Is this just a correlation and not a causation? Do you think geography is linked to happiness?

If you’d like to dig deeper:

Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss, Twelve, 2008

Forbes article on the Gallup research

UN Human Development Indicators

 

The Science of Happiness, Part 1: Everyone Has A Happiness "Set Point"

Picture of a Gauge with a needle about 2/3 of the way over
What is your happiness set point?

Are you a happy person? Is there such a thing as a happy person? Is happiness something that can be scientifically studied? Only you know the answer to the first question above, but the answer to the other questions is “yes”. This post is the first in a short series on the science of happiness.

Your set point — Two books that talk about the set point of happiness are: The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert. Each individual has a tendency to have, and stay at, a certain level of happiness. Some people are naturally more happy than others. There is a “set point” for your own personal happiness, and that set point is 50% determined by genetics. In other words you are born with a tendency to be very happy, somewhat happy, or not very happy. The events in your life can affect your happiness, but not very much, and not for very long. Whether you win the lottery, or lose your job, you will tend to “bounce back” or not, to your natural level of happiness.

How to determine your set point — Chances are you already know approximately where your happiness set point is, but if  you are interested in finding out more exactly, you can take a questionnaire and score yourself in The How of Happiness book. BUT, I have to say that that is the only part of the book that I recommend. I purchased the How Of Happiness book because it promised to handle the science of happiness. However, only a small portion of the book relates to the science. The rest is a collection of what I consider tired advice on how to be happy (spend time with loved ones, be grateful for what you have, etc). Luckily for us there are other books that are research based and have real insights about happiness. I’ll be covering these other books as I write the rest of this series on The Science of Happiness.

Can you change your set point? — By definition, a set point is something that is hard to change. So the bad news is that you really can’t change your set point for happiness. BUT having said that, you should realize that only about 50% of your happiness is determined by that set point. This means that even though you can’t change your set point for happiness, you CAN change how happy you are, (to a limit). In the rest of the posts in this series we’ll explore the research on happiness factors, and what you can do to be happier regardless of where your set point is. Here’s a sneak previews– being grateful for what you have won’t necessarily do it (and may actually lower your happiness!).

 

What do you think? Do you know your own happiness set point?

 

References:

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin, 2008

Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert, Vintage, 2007

100 Things You Should Know About People: #72 — Trust Is The Best Predictor Of Happiness

 

Book Cover of The Geography of BlissIf you want to know who is happiest, then figure out who feels the most trust.Which country has the happiest people? — Eric Weiner traveled all over the world in search of answers to the questions: Which countries have the happiest people and why? His answers surprised him and they surprised me too. Based on research, Iceland comes out towards the top of the pile, and Saudi Arabia towards the bottom.

Happiness factors — Here is some of what he discovered and writes about:

Extroverts are happier than introverts.

Optimists are happier than pessimists.

Married people are happier than singles, but people with children are the same as childless couples.

Republicans are happier than democrats.

People who go to church are happier than those who don’t.

People with college degrees are happier than those without, but people with advanced degrees are less happy.

People with an active sex life are happier than those without.

Women and men are equally happy, but women have a wider emotional range.

Having an affair will make you happy, but not if your spouse finds out and leaves you.

People are least happy when they are commuting to work.

Busy people are happier than those with too little to do.

Trust is the best predictor — But the best predictor of happiness is trust. If people trust the people around them, friends, and family, and if they trust their government, then they will score highest on the happiness surveys.

What do you think? Why is trust such a big predictor?

Eric Weiner’s book is a informative, but it’s also a fun read, filled with interesting stories as he travels all around the world. I highly recommend it, and here’s a link for the book at Amazon: