Those Are Boxes of Joy Under the Tree

Don't underestimate the happiness physical presents can produce.
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Don't underestimate the happiness physical presents can produce.

We have known for a long time now that experiential purchases, like taking a vacation or going to a concert, produce more long-term happiness than material ones. After all, a great experience will provide beautiful memories years after any shiny new toy has been discarded and forgotten.

So why do we still give one another sweaters and skateboards for Christmas, as opposed to, say, airplane tickets?

One answer is provided in a timely new paper by University of British Columbia psychologists Aaron Weidman and Elizabeth Dunn. They report that the pleasure we derive from things—including physical presents we excitedly unwrap—is underrated.

"Material and experiential purchases deliver happiness in two distinct flavors," they write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Great experiences provide intense happiness followed by a warm afterglow, but tangible items one can play with, or wear, result in more frequent episodes of momentary joy.

One of the researchers' two studies focuses specifically on Christmas presents. Just prior to the holiday break, 81 undergraduates were assigned to choose one gift among the many they received. They were randomly assigned to focus on either a material present or an experiential one. (The gifts were of approximately the same monetary value.)

"Beginning on Christmas day, participants were sent three to five text messages per day for two weeks," the researchers write. Participants were asked whether they were using or experiencing their gift at that moment, and to rate (on a zero-to-five scale) the degree to which the gift is "contributing to your happiness in life right now."

One month later, participants completed a follow-up questionnaire designed to reveal their level of "afterglow happiness."

The researchers found material goods produced happiness more frequently, while experiential presents produced fewer but more intense moments of joy. And, in line with past research, experiences produced a stronger feeling of lingering happiness, as measured in the month-later survey.

"Our findings suggest that the choice between material and experiential purchases inherently involves a tradeoff between frequent and intense momentary happiness," the researchers conclude. The issue of which type of present is superior "may hinge on whether one is seeking an intense but fleeting form of happiness that is accompanied by a rosy afterglow, or a more subtle and frequent form."

So, last-minute gift buyers, the best advice may be to consider the personality of the person you are buying for, and make your purchase accordingly. And if you're not sure—well, tickets to a special concert, along with a new jacket to wear to the event, might make a nice combo.