Most people want to be grateful. Most people would rather be full of gratitude than prone to feelings of entitlement or resentment. But as we all know, gratitude can be elusive, and resentment and entitlement have a way of creeping in.

Much of the excellent gratitude research conducted over the past 20 years has therefore focused on what people can do to experience more of this healthy, productive emotion. Most research on gratitude is aimed at trying to promote it. 

But as Kurt Lewin, the “father of social psychology,” emphasized many years ago, there is a limit to how much change we can bring about when we try to motivate people who are already highly motivated. The better approach in these situations, he noted, is to figure out what’s preventing the person from acting and then try to eliminate those barriers. In the field of gratitude research, are there further gains to be made by focusing on what prevents people from feeling grateful?

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I believe there are, and my students and I have been conducting research aimed at understanding the “enemies” of gratitude. What have we found? Enemy number one is easy to identify: adaptation. Simply put, we get used to things over time and start to take them for granted. But my research has also uncovered ways that we as individuals—and hopefully even societies—can start to overcome this barrier.

How to make gratitude last

People have a remarkable capacity to adapt to anything that comes their way. That capacity is a great resource when we experience something negative. It’s what allows us to recover from trauma and get over setbacks that make it seem like life “will never be the same.” Adaptation can’t make things literally be the same, but it can make us feel as good and as fulfilled as we were beforehand.

Although adaptation can be a great resource when it comes to overcoming negative events, it is a powerful enemy when it comes to getting continued enjoyment from positive events. We think that things will be different when we get that job offer, that promotion, or that longed-for reciprocation of romantic interest. And things are different, but generally only for a while. These improvements in our lives become the new baseline to which we adapt, and we soon need something more to provide the same level of satisfaction, excitement, or joy.

What to do about this formidable enemy of happiness? People do not adapt equally to everything, and so it’s useful to consider what sorts of things are more resistant to adaptation. 

That’s what we did when we examined the gratitude people feel for the purchases they’ve made. My research team and I decided to investigate if people feel more (and more enduring) gratitude for their material purchases—a bookcase, a jacket, or a piece of jewelry—or their experiential purchases—tickets to see a favorite band in concert, lessons from a respected coach or teacher, or travel to a far-off land one has dreamed about since childhood.

Logo for the GGSC Gratitude Project The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

In the simplest test of this idea, we asked survey respondents to think about either a recent material purchase that cost more than $100 or a recent experiential purchase that cost that much. They then rated how happy they were with the purchase and how grateful it made them. The respondents felt significantly more grateful for the experiences they had purchased—they seemed to be less adapted to them. 

Additional evidence comes from an analysis of online purchase reviews. We downloaded 1,200 reviews from websites devoted to material products (CNET, Amazon) and to experiences (Yelp, TripAdvisor) and had raters, unaware of the purpose of our investigation, rate each review for how much it conveyed a feeling of gratitude about the purchase. There were significantly more expressions of gratitude in the reviews posted on the experience-oriented websites.

Finally, gratitude researchers have shown that being grateful makes it easier for us to get in touch with our “best self,” and this is reflected in the willingness to move beyond our selfish impulses and give to others. So we decided to test if experiential purchases would also spur more generosity than material purchases.

We had people reflect on the most significant material or experiential purchase they had made in the past five years. Then, participants played a laboratory game in which they decided how much of a bonus sum of money to keep for themselves and how much to anonymously give to another participant, who was a stranger to them. Those who had reflected on experiential purchases were more generous than those who had thought about material purchases. Experiential purchases seem to orient us outward, making us more kind and helpful; material purchases seem to draw us inward, making us less generous to others.

Live for the experiences

You might wonder why experiences tend to inspire more gratitude than material possessions. Two reasons are paramount. First, experiences constitute a bigger part of our identity. No matter how much we might appreciate our material possessions, they remain separate from us. Experiences, in contrast, are not detached from us: We are, in part, the sum total of our experiences. What we build up in ourselves endures; it doesn’t diminish over time. 

Second, experiences connect us to other people more than our possessions do. We’re more likely to partake in our experiential purchases with other people, share stories about them, and feel a bond with people who’ve made the same purchase. These social connections resist adaptation and make the pleasure we get from our experiences endure.

So the lesson should be clear: If you want to cultivate a more grateful disposition, buy more experiences and fewer possessions. This does not mean that you need to swear off all material goods and live the life of an ascetic. By all means, continue to enjoy your material possessions. Just shift your expenditures a bit more in the experiential direction, and a bit less in the material direction, and you’re likely to find yourself enjoying the many psychological benefits that come with being more grateful.  

Several modern trends point to an interest in curbing our materialistic spending, from environmental awareness to new approaches toward urban planning. It is my hope that our research on the greater gratitude and satisfaction that people derive from experiential rather than material consumption will add another voice to this emerging chorus.

What remains to be done is to conduct research on how these findings can be scaled up. For example, when communities invest in experiential infrastructure (parks, trails, beaches, amphitheaters), does the population as a whole achieve a gain in well-being and gratitude? And as advances in robotics and artificial intelligence lead to the elimination of more and more manufacturing jobs (which provide consumers with material goods), what new experiential jobs will arise to fill the gaps?

I am excited about the prospect of finding out—and of contributing to a growing social movement that will lead to a less materialist and more experiential economy.

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