I’ve talked a lot about travel and happiness.
In researching my book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, I found that travel plays a role in the overall joy you experience in retirement. The happiest retirees take an average of 2.4 vacations a year, while those who report being unhappy take only 1.4 on average. While the difference of one vacation may seem small, it makes a big difference.
Ever wonder why traveling makes us feel so good, versus, say, buying a new TV? The answer is layered, but the overarching reason is that spending money on experiences engenders more gratitude in us than the fleeting pleasure of new, shiny “things.”
The positive feelings prompted by gratitude are powerful, and so are the health benefits associated with feeling grateful. So, in addition to boosting your emotional health and mood and helping you treat other people better, practicing gratitude can improve your physical health by keeping stress and fear at bay.
There is one surefire way to infuse gratitude into your daily life: Focus your spending more on experiences than on material goods.
It is a proven fact that we feel more grateful for our last trip than we do about the last thing we bought. Sure, that new pair of shoes may be good-looking, but it’s doubtful you feel grateful for them. Now, that recent trip to Hawaii where you snorkeled and swam and lazed on the beach – that’s something to be grateful about.
How do we know that this difference in feelings about experience versus things is real? Because science says so.
Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Cornell University and the co-author of a new research report on gratitude. His findings demonstrated not only that people express more gratitude about experiences than about objects, but it also found that this type of gratitude makes people more generous when interacting with others.
To investigate when and how gratitude most commonly manifests, Gilovich and his colleagues examined 1,200 online customer reviews. Of these reviews, half were for purchases made for the sake of doing (like restaurant meals, show tickets, or vacations), and half were for purchases made for the sake of having (like furniture, jewelry, and clothing).
These researchers weren’t surprised when they discovered that reviewers were more likely to express gratitude in posts about experiences versus things. “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,” said the authors in the journal Emotion.
In addition to analyzing online customer reviews, the researchers performed two other experiments. In the first, folks were recruited from an online database and asked to think about a recent purchase over $100. It could have been either on an experience or a tangible thing. Then they were asked how grateful they were for that purchase on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being the least and 9 being the most grateful. The folks who had spent their money on an experience reported higher scores (an average of 7.36) than the material-possessions group (average 6.91).
And in the last experiment, the researchers investigated how purchase-related gratitude would affect how people behaved toward others. Participants were first asked to think for a few minutes about a meaningful purchase, be it material or experiential. A few minutes later, they were given the seemingly unrelated task of dividing $10 between themselves and an anonymous recipient.
Which group do you think was more charitable? You got it. Those who remembered an experience or event gave away about $1 to $2 more than the other group.
This link between gratitude and altruistic behavior “suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply not only to the consumers of those purchases but to others in their orbit as well,” said co-author Amit Kumar, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Chicago.
“All one needs to do is spend a little less on material goods and a little more on experiences,” said the research report in Emotion. “In addition to enhancing gratitude, experiential consumption may also increase the likelihood that people will cooperate and show kindness to each other.” And we can all agree that both of these things – happy experiences and caring to others – are things worth pursuing. Now we know the two go hand-in-hand.