Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

Don’t Forget Your Souvenir: How material possessions influence long term happiness

By Brittany Christian, Zach Bradley


Picture this: You’re relaxing in your favorite coffee shop indulging yourself in another sip of your beverage made perfectly to order as you glance out the window peacefully and reflect on your day; its ups and downs; the good and that which was not so. Meanwhile, an old and dear friend that you haven’t seen in some time enters the shop. Upon noticing you, they rush over and surprise you with a warm smile and embrace you with a hug. Your friend joins you on the couch and you immediately become wrapped up in the most delightful conversation you’ve had all week. You smile and laugh as you talk of family, pleasant memories, and all things that you and your friend love to talk about. Time passes and the shop empties as the conversation continues into the night. Eventually, the conversation begins to bring itself to a close. With another hug, you wish your friend goodnight and leave the shop feeling happy and content. You can’t help but notice you’re wearing what you wear best, a smile.

Scenarios like the one described above represent the very types of experiences that we believe imbue our lives with purpose and meaning. Indeed, previous research has confirmed that experiences bring us more happiness than possessions in the short term. But what about happiness in the long term? Does the joy of an experience withstand the test of time, and if not, is there a way that can help encourage the preservation of such happiness? Recent research by Maria Sääksjärvi, Katarina Hellén, and Pieter Desmet addressed these questions and explored whether or not adding a material component to an experience can facilitate a longer lasting impact on happiness. The researchers conducted two studies to examine the effects of experiences and material possessions on momentary and extended happiness.

Image ©: Artur Borowski 2015

The first study investigated the role of materiality on happiness in three different conditions (experience, material possession, experience with a material possession) where those in the experience condition imagined listening to a new music album and those in the material condition imagined merely purchasing the music album. Finally, those in the combined condition imagined both purchasing and listening to the album. Following the imagery, participants’ happiness was measured using two separate questionnaires. The first questionnaire examined immediate happiness, while the second looked at life satisfaction more broadly (a more longitudinal assessment of happiness). The results revealed that the experience condition enhanced short term happiness relative to the other two conditions, but that the benefit of experiences did not have an impact on life satisfaction more broadly.

In the second study, the researchers investigated the question of long-term happiness benefits more directly by utilizing real (cf. imagined) experiences and a longitudinal study design. Over the course of 6 weeks, participants were assigned 6 different “happiness enhancing” activities (like planning a date with someone you have not talked with in a long time) to complete on a weekly basis. Importantly, participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions (i.e., experience only vs. experience + material). The only difference between the two conditions was that those in the condition with a material component were given the activities to do on colored key tags that they were able to keep. At the end of each respective day and week, participants completed questionnaires that assessed their current state of happiness. Results from the study revealed that participants who received key tags not only reported being happier at the end of the six weeks, but also displayed an increase in perceived happiness as the study progressed that was not shown by those without the physical reminder of their experiences. Taken together, the current research suggests that both short and long term happiness can be fostered by pairing a positive experience with something material. The study concludes by suggesting that adding a material component to an experience helps to establish an extended state of mind with the experience itself by providing a tangible connection to it, making it deeper and more profound in nature.

Corroborating previous work covered at New Paths to Purpose, the joy of experiences, particularly those that allow us to connect with others, rather than material gains seems to foster a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. While the positive emotions associated with experiences often fade over time, a small token or physical reminder can help to keep the memory (and positive emotions) alive. Consider again an unexpected encounter with an old friend at a coffee shop. Your experience will have certainly enhanced your happiness in the moment, but a small souvenir (something as simple as a photo or the sleeve of your coffee cup), might help to ensure that you smile about that memory again someday in the future J.


Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Zach Bradley is an Undergraduate Research Assistant

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

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