Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being

What are you waiting for? Finding joy in the interim

By Brittany Christian, Janina Steinmetz



Whether you are 7 or 70, chances are you don’t love the idea of waiting for something that you want. All too often we seem to find ourselves in an ‘I need it now’ mind set, lamenting about how much better it would be if we could get our hands on the latest gadget today or go on our Fijian vacation next week instead of waiting for winter vacation. Regardless of what it is that we are waiting for, there is a general sentiment that now is better than later. Curiously, however, previous research has shown that people are actually willing to pay more money for a positive experience (i.e., a kiss from a favorite celebrity) that will occur in 3 days’ time than for one that will take place within the next 24 hours. This finding suggests that pleasure can be derived from anticipating positive events. But is this always the case or might it be dependent upon exactly what it is we are waiting for?

A growing body of evidence on the science of happiness points very clearly to the idea that life is more enriched by experiences than possessions. As you might expect, experiences have been defined as intangible events that are ‘lived through’ (e.g., backpacking through Europe), whereas possessions are classed as strictly tangible items that can be acquired (e.g., a new laptop). If experiences bring us greater happiness, might the anticipation leading up to these events also be more pleasurable than the waiting that precedes material gains?

Image ©: Juavenita 2008

A recent study by Amit Kumar, a graduate student at Cornell University, Dr. Matthew Killingsworth and Professor Thomas Gilovich explored this question to determine whether it is more enjoyable to wait for some things (i.e., experiences) than others (i.e., possessions). In one study, participants were either instructed to consider an experience or a material possession that they planned to spend money on in the ‘very near future’. Participants were then asked to rate whether their anticipation about the purchase felt more like impatience or excitement. Additionally, participants reported how pleasant their experience of anticipation was. Despite a societal tendency to avoid waiting at all costs, the experimenters found that anticipation for both material and experiential purchases was considered to be generally positive. What is more, the feelings associated with looking forward to an experiential purchase were imbued with more excitement and considered to be more pleasant than those associated with a material purchase. This was true even though the two types of purchases did not differ in monetary value. In other words, it was not the cost, but the type of purchase that influenced feelings of waiting.

Another study explored whether similar patterns emerged in everyday life by reviewing publicly documented behavior of people waiting in line for experiences (e.g., a concert) and material goods (e.g., a big clothing sale). This investigation revealed that on the group level, behavior was more positive and less aggressive when waiting for experiences rather than possessions – suggesting that even physically standing in line is more pleasant when awaiting an experience (cf. a possession).

These findings shed new light on previous research conducted at New Paths to Purpose and elsewhere, which has suggested that money spent on others or personal experiences brings more happiness than money spent on material possessions for ourselves. Adding an additional layer, it seems that the time leading up to experiences (cf. material purchases) is actually more enjoyable. Practically speaking, this work serves as a guide to making the best types of purchases and elucidates that exactly when we get something (now vs. not now) may be less detrimental to our enjoyment than is often thought. (In fact, the longer we wait the more value we seem to place on the very possessions we are waiting for.)

Purpose is a lifetime pursuit. In this sense, setting goals or seeking experiences that cannot be completed or obtained immediately may give us something to continuously work towards. In doing so we may be able to enhance our sense of purpose and prolong the excitement that is associated with looking forward to an experience or achievement. Alternatively, if you find yourself impatiently waiting for something and frustrated by the delay, it might be worth taking a step back to reconsider exactly what it is that you waiting for.



Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being

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