In a new study recently published online in an issue of the journal Emotion, Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University notes that many of us take a moment to reflect on what we’re grateful for on Thanksgiving. He adds that we get notable rewards for doing so, as feeling grateful leads to important benefits such as better health outcomes, increased happiness and social cohesion, and even improved sleep quality.
The question is whether you get more of such benefits from the vacation you took, or that antique sofa you bought. Gilovich’s research shows that we feel more gratitude for what we’ve done than for what we have. That kind of gratitude also results in us behaving more generously toward others.
Although people say positive things about the stuff they bought, they don’t usually express gratitude for it, or they don’t express it as often as they do for their experiences. You are more likely to feel blessed when you come home from a vacation than what you would when you have bought a set of shelves or a new couch.
The researchers not only conducted experiments, but also found real world evidence for this by looking at 1,200 online customer reviews. Half of the reviews studied were for material purchases like furniture and clothing and half for experiential purchases like hotel stays and restaurant meals. Reviewers were less likely to mention feeling grateful spontaneously for material purchases than for experiential ones.
Jesse Walker is a graduate student in the field of psychology and first author of the study. She explains that one reason for this increased gratitude may be that experiences trigger fewer social comparisons than material possessions. As a result, experiences are more likely to foster a greater thankfulness of one’s own circumstances.
The researchers also explored how gratitude for material versus experiences purchases affected pro social behavior. Using an economic game in the study, they found that when participants thought about a meaningful experiential purchase, they behaved more generously toward others than when thinking about a material purchase.
Amit Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and co-author of the paper, finds this link between gratitude and altruistic behavior intriguing. She notes that it suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply to both the consumers of those purchases themselves, as well as to others in their orbit.
Gilovich is particularly interested in applying insights from modern social psychology to improving peoples’ lives. He is excited by the results and believes this research shows an approach that can be taken by governments to both increase the well being of their citizens and advance societal good.
He suggests that public policy should encourage people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things. This would increase their happiness and gratitude and make them more generous. He envisages that such policies might include funding for public parks, performance spaces and museums.