April 4, 2010

Cornell Study: Memories Most Key to Happiness

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It’s a Saturday night, and you’re conflicted.  On the one hand, you can go meet your friends at the bar, spend $30 on six beers, another $10 on a half-eaten Louie’s Lunch sub and yet another $10 on a cab ride home — all just to crash on your bed, covered in mayo, several hours later.

On the other hand, you can stay in your dorm and put the $50 you would have otherwise wasted into buying that new Segway model you’ve been eyeing since it first came to Cornell in September. Research from Cornell researchers suggests that you’d be better off with the night of drunken debauchery.

Prof. Tom Gilovich, psychology and Travis Carter grad recently wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that purchasing experiences leads to greater long-term enjoyment than buying material possessions.  After conducting several studies over the course of two years, Gilovich and Carter have come to believe our memories are a much more essential component of our emotional well being than our purchases.

Their research may come at a particularly prescient moment — as Cornell administrators, in light of recent events, are increasingly looking for ways to make the campus a happier place for students.

Carter said that material possessions often don’t provide as much long-term happiness as we expect them to.

“The idea behind the research is that experiences — concerts, vacations, meals at restaurants — tend to be ultimately more satisfying than spending money on material possessions — [i.e.] clothes and jewelry,” Carter said.

Carter believes we draw more happiness from experiences because “experiences are intangible [and therefore] harder to compare.”  He illustrated this by saying, “It’s a lot harder to compare meals at a restaurant than comparing cellphones.”

Carter cited a study in which he and Gilovich asked volunteers to consider eating potato chips in the context of chocolate.  Carter said that the potato chips, being a future possession, did not sound that appealing when the prospect of chocolate was brought up.

Yet when given potato chips to eat, volunteers were indifferent to the possibility of chocolate. “Eating potato chips is such an immersive experience” volunteers didn’t care about the fact that they did not possess chocolate, Carter said.

“If [you have] $50 to spend between a sweater and a concert,” choosing the concert will probably lead to greater long-term happiness, Carter said.  This is a little “counter-intuitive,” he admitted, because it “seems like the sweater will be better” since the concert is such a short-term event.

“Your experiences are inherently less comparative, they’re less subject to and less undermined by invidious social comparisons,” Gilovich told Physorg.com.

Gilovich also told the website that his research could have implications for public policy.  The website quoted Gilovich as saying that “if people get more enduring happiness from their experiences than their possessions … at a policy level we might want to make available the resources that enable [those experiences],” such as hiking trails in parks.

When asked, Carter added that Cornell might be able to promote the happiness of its student body through experience as well.  He said it might be effective to “encourage people to go out to eat … bring bands [and] haveplays and concerts.”

“Anything Cornell can do to [get its students] have positive experiences with other people,” it should, Carter said.

Original Author: Jeff Stein