Study: Gratitude for experiences brings surprising benefits

On Thanksgiving, many of us take a moment to reflect on what we’re grateful for – and we get rewards for doing so. Feeling gratitude leads to benefits like increased happiness and social cohesion, better health outcomes and even improved sleep quality.

But will you get more of such benefits from that antique sofa you bought or the vacation you took? New research shows that we feel more gratitude for what we’ve done than for what we have – and that kind of gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others.

“Our previous research found that consumers derive more enduring happiness from experiences than from material goods, and our new studies show that experiences generate greater feelings of gratitude, with its resulting benefits,” said Amit Kumar, Ph.D. ’15. Kumar published the study with Thomas Gilovich, interim chair and the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology, and Jesse Walker, a graduate student in the field of psychology, in a recent issue of the journal Emotion.

“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” said Gilovich. “You might say, ‘This new couch is cool,’ but you’re less likely to say, ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’ But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go.’ People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it – or they don’t express it as often as they do for their experiences.”

In addition to experiments they conducted, the researchers found real-world evidence for this by looking at 1,200 online customer reviews, half for experiential purchases like restaurant meals and hotel stays and half for material purchases like furniture and clothing. Reviewers were more likely to spontaneously mention feeling grateful for experiential purchases than material ones.

“One reason for this increased gratitude,” said Walker, “may be because experiences trigger fewer social comparisons than material possessions. Consequently, experiences are more likely to foster a greater appreciation of one’s own circumstances.” And, the researchers write, “we suspect that people are likely to feel grateful for purchases that connect them to others, enhance their sense of self, and encourage them to appreciate what they’ve purchased for its intrinsic value, not for how it compares with what others have purchased. Experiential purchases do just that.”

The researchers also looked at how gratitude for experiences versus material purchases affected prosocial behavior. In a study involving an economic game, they found that thinking about a meaningful experiential purchase caused participants to behave more generously toward others than when they thought about a material purchase.

The kind of gratitude that participants in the studies felt from experiential purchases was more likely to be “untargeted,” not attributed to someone else’s actions. The researchers suggest that this kind of gratitude for an experience can result in a strong urge to somehow express that feeling in action – such as giving to others, even to anonymous others.

Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago, says this link between gratitude and altruistic behavior is intriguing, “because it suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply not only to the consumers of those purchases themselves, but to others in their orbit as well.”

Gilovich, who is interested in applying insights from modern social psychology to improving peoples’ lives, says this new research shows an approach that governments can take to increase the well-being of their citizens and advance societal good.

“If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude and happiness and make them more generous as well,” he said. Such policies might include funding for public parks, museums and performance spaces.

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