Perhaps you can buy happiness after all

Well, at least we now know that the happiness can come in the form of experiences or material possessions.

As part of looking back on 10 years of importing and selling wine, I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how my millennial customers generally don’t buy the same wine twice.  The most common explanation for this, as I mentioned in the post, is that millennial customers prefer to have experiences over acquiring things.  Drinking wine counts as an experience (or at least part of an experience), and not sticking with the same wines makes for new experiences with each bottle.

There’s even a body of research suggesting that people (not just millennials) are happier, in general, when they prioritize experiences over consumption.  Part of that may happen naturally, as you acquire more things.  I’ve noticed that the wine trips Cy and I have taken in the past few years have been more about the places and people there and less about acquiring souvenirs than they used to be.  We love and use our French table linens and ceramics, but we also don’t necessarily feel the need to get more stuff.  And I have anecdotal evidence that it’s not just us.  A friend in the fine jewelry business tells me he’s concerned because, at least at this point, younger customers aren’t looking for pieces the way they used to.

So I was intrigued to read a piece in Slate a few days ago suggesting that the perceived experience/consumption ratio for happiness might not be the case.  Nick Thieme reports on a Hungarian study on data taken as part of an annual household survey.  The results show that people who spend money on experiences are equally as happy, on average, as those who spend money on consumer goods.  While experiences come out slightly ahead in the number-crunching, the difference for experiences vs. consumption is negligible and not statistically significant.

What makes the new study interesting is that it’s a different approach than previous researchers took.  The older studies typically divided people into two groups.  One was asked about recent experiences and how happy they made the individuals.  The other group was asked about material purchases.  The results showed that the experiences group was, on average, happier with its spending than the material purchases group.

But the Hungarian study took a different approach:  asking people how they had spent their money over the past month, three months, and the past year, and then separately for a numerical measure of their happiness.  The purchase data was easily separated into experiences and non-experiences.  The researchers found that those who spent more on experiences vs. material purchases didn’t consider themselves any happier.

It’s an interesting comparison.  Both methodologies are valid, although they come to different results.  And both could be tweaked to be more similar:  in future, Hungarian researchers could ask people directly whether they thought that their spending had influenced their happiness, and the other researchers could ask their subjects about overall happiness instead of just happiness with particular spending.  But the Hungarian study definitely suggests that the idea that experiences make us happier than other purchases isn’t as strong as previously indicated.  It also points out that things aren’t as clear-cut as they might seem in behavioral studies like these.

As a wine merchant, I found the study interesting, of course.  Wine is an experience but also a material purchase.  So perhaps it’s not a bad thing to stress both aspects in pitching to customers.  I’m also glad to see that my non-millennial customers (who are repeat buyers of wines they like) may be just as happy as the new-experience-seeking millennial crowd, too.  I’d hate to think they were having all the fun.  Plus it makes me think maybe it’s possible to buy your way to happiness after all!


Happy post-July 4th!  We went to a slew of cookouts, with one genuine barbecue in there too.  I’ll have a couple of recipes for you soon.

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One Response to Perhaps you can buy happiness after all

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Aligoté & Amazon

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