You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of practicing gratitude—how it can boost your mood, help you treat others better, improve physical health, and keep stress and fear at bay. Now, here’s a little trick for how to automatically infuse more gratitude into your life: Spend more money on experiences, and less on material objects.
“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Cornell University and co-author a new study on gratitude, said in a press release. “You might say, ‘this new couch is cool,’ but you're less likely to say ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’”
“But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go,’” he continued. “People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don't usually express gratitude for it—or they don't express it as often as they do for their experiences.”
Gilovich’s new study shows that people not only express more gratitude about events and experiences than they do about objects; it also found that this kind of gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others.
To examine these patterns, Gilovich and his colleagues looked at 1,200 online customer reviews—half for purchases made for the sake of doing (like restaurant meals, show tickets, or vacations), and half for purchase made for the sake of having (like furniture, jewelry, and clothing). They weren’t surprised to find that reviewers were more likely to bring up gratitude in posts about the former than the latter.
“People tend to be more inspired to comment on their feelings of gratitude when they reflect on the trips they took, the venues they visited, or the meals they ate than when they reflect on the gadgets, furniture, or clothes they bought,” the authors wrote in the journal Emotion.
First author Jesse Walker, a psychology graduate student at Cornell, says that experiential purchases may elicit more gratitude because they don’t trigger as many social comparisons as material possessions do. In other words, experiences may foster an appreciation of one’s own circumstances, rather than feelings of falling short or trying to measure up to someone else’s.
The researchers also performed several experiments with either college students or adults recruited from an online database. In one experiment, 297 participants were asked to think about a recent purchase over $100, either experiential and material. When asked how grateful they were for that purchase on a scale of 1 to 9, the experiential group reported higher scores (an average of 7.36) than the material-possessions group (average 6.91).
In a similar experiment, participants also said that the experiential purchase made them happier than the material one, and represented money better spent—findings that echo previous research on this topic.
Finally, the researchers performed two exercises to determine how purchase-related gratitude might affect how people behave toward others. In both, participants were asked to think for a few minutes about a meaningful purchase, either experiential or material. A few minutes later, they were given a seemingly unrelated task of dividing $10 between themselves and an anonymous recipient.
Which group was more charitable? Those who had been tasked with remembering an experience or event gave away about $1 to $2 more, on average, than the material group.
Co-author Amit Kumar, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Chicago, says that this link between gratitude and altruistic behavior “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.”
These findings can certainly apply to individuals looking to be more grateful in their everyday lives, Gilovich says, but they may have implications for communities and governments, as well.
"If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude and happiness and make them more generous as well," he says. Funding organizations that provide these experiences—such as public parks, museums and performance spaces—could be a good start, he adds.
If you’re looking to express more gratitude as you spend time with family, shop for gifts, and juggle your packed schedule this upcoming holiday season, you can keep the researchers’ advice in mind.
“All one needs to do is spend a little less on material goods and a little more on experiences,” the wrote in their paper. “In addition to enhancing gratitude, experiential consumption may also increase the likelihood that people will cooperate and show kindness to each other.”