Aristotle: on the money more than two millennia ago

We’re all aware of the sentiment that material things and ownership thereof aren’t the be all and end all of our little human lives and aren’t perhaps the most ideal sources of happiness. Aristotle was onto this thing more than two thousand years ago (“men fancy that external goods are the cause of happiness” – Book 7, Politics), so you would have to have your head buried very deeply in some very dense and tightly packed sand to not have heard of the notion.

What does science have to say on the matter, though? Empirical research can throw some light on where happiness stands when it comes to material goods or… an alternative to material goods.

Back in 2003, Van Boven and Gilovich from the University of Colorado conducted a study to look at what contributes more greatly to a person’s sense of happiness: material goods or life experiences? Does spending money on material items, like clothes or electronics, make you more or less happy than spending money on experiences, like going to a restaurant or a concert? Does having things bring more happiness than doing things, or is it the other way around?

They addressed this via several different surveys and experiments, asking a few different questions. In this post, I’ll just discuss the question they asked in their first experiment: quite simply, how happy are people with material purchases compared to experiential purchases? The results seem to suggest some truth to the millennia-old sentiment that material purchases might not be all they cracked up to be.

When asked about material or experiential purchases made over the value of US$100 in the previous month, it was found that people considered experiential purchases, compared to material purchases, to make them significantly more happy, to contribute more greatly to the happiness of their life, and to better represent money well spent.

The thing is, people were never asked to directly compare a material purchase of theirs to an experiential purchase of theirs – asking them to do that would perhaps set up a bias due to the negative stereotypes associated with materialism. You don’t want to seem shallow, so you would maybe rate your material-related happiness as less than your experience-related happiness. But what the researchers did was to ask people in one group to evaluate their personal material purchases, and to ask people in another group to evaluate their personal experiential purchases, with people having been assigned randomly to one group or the other. That’s how they found that the average happiness ratings for experiential purchases seemed to be significantly higher than the average ratings for material purchases.

Granted, this is just a comparison between two types of purchases, and this experiment did not look at whether buying material things made you happier than, say, not buying material things (there are a whole lot more factors to consider in that matter). But when you’re at that critical point of considering making a purchase, don’t think you can necessarily justify it by thinking of how happy it will make you. If you’re really designating your happiness as a crucial factor in the matter, you should perhaps consider reapportioning those funds to something a bit more experiential.

One Thought on “Aristotle: on the money more than two millennia ago

  1. Korien on March 24, 2013 at 5:07 am said:

    I came across your blog earlier today and think that your writing is excellent. It is also very nice to find a blog from the southern hemisphere to which I can relate a bit more than the a lot of the northern hemisphere ones – your post on the winter jacket and for cold (15C) weather. I started reading from the first post, in order to “escape” writing a paper using Aristotle’s ethical virtues. This post has me thinking I need to get back to writing…

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