Behavior

Would you rather — think about vacation or a new smartphone?

Aug. 29, 2014 at 9:11 AM ET

Before the latest video game or smartphone goes on sale, people line up for days (hello, iPhone 6!), anticipating its arrival. Often that leads to pushing, shoving, and sometimes punching — even when there is enough supply to go around. 

Wait. Owning lots of cool stuff, especially the latest gadget, is supposed to make us happy. So why do we throw out so much negative energy when we're anticipating a purchase? 

We're impatient and often behave badly when we anticipate buying stuff, more than when we anticipate purchasing an experience like a vacation, according to a report from Cornell University released this week. In other words, money spent on doing makes us happier than money spent on having, the researchers found.

That may seem obvious to some and counter-intuitive to others (retail therapy lovers, for example), but the new research is a reminder how experiences connect us to others and help make us who we are, the researchers say. That's why spending money on an event or activity— a concert, skiing or going to an amusement park —leaves us feeling better than thinking about buying a tangible item.

** HFM ** FOR USE WITH STORY SLUGGED: GULF OIL SPILL JULY FOURTH ** Empty chairs line the beach in Perdido Key, Fla., Friday, July 2, 2010. Oil from t...
Dave Martin / AP file
You'll feel happier planning for a vacation, like a trip to the beach, than thinking about buying the latest gadget.

“In thinking about how something is building your autobiography, that can be exciting in a way that thinking about a … material good can’t match,” says Thomas Gilovich, the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology at Cornell.

Gilovich and colleagues conducted four studies. In one, they asked 97 college students to think about spending on an experience or a thing. The subjects ranked whether they felt impatient or excited. While people felt good about spending on both, regardless of cost, those who considered purchasing an experience felt more excitement and less impatience.

The researchers also looked at anticipation in real life by randomly contacting 2,266 adults about future purchases. About 19 percent of the time they were considering a purchase; those thinking about splurging on an experience felt better than those thinking about a tangible item.

While he didn’t look at why anticipating purchasing an experience feels better, but he suspects the reasons are the same as why we enjoy experiences more. 

So if you've got post-vacation blues, you'll be happier planning your next trip than buying something. 

“More experiential spending [can] improve our well-being,” says Gilovich.  

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