In recent weeks a number of Facebook posts have appeared in my feed referencing a growing body of scientific research supporting the reality that experiences bring more happiness than material things. More to the point, the research found that money spent on experiences such as concerts, travel and tours, “buys” more happiness than the purchasing of material items such as a car or a new sofa. One friend’s post on the topic of experiential purchases coincided with her return from a trip to India.  As a tour operator, I had an immediate interest in published scientific evidence supporting the value of what I do for a profession.  

As I read the reports of these studies, I also thought about them from a purely personal perspective. My mind lead me to memories I shared with my family and friends, a trip across the country from with my grandparents to a family reunion, a Fall Break in college to Zion National Park, the trip to Aruba with my wife when I first learned how to kiteboard, and the list can go on.  My thoughts also turned to an upcoming trip to Florida that has how past. My wife and I are still talking about the good time we had with her brother and his family that we hadn’t seen for several years.

These memories help create a level of happiness that can otherwise be hard to sustain with our minds wandering to all sorts of things: fears, worries, anxiety, etc. Likewise, it’s the anticipation of the next trip that creates a sense of excitement and joy of what is to come. For those interested in reading more about this research, a good place to start is an article by James Hamblin in the October 2014 issue of the Atlantic.  One scholar whose research is most directly associated with experiential purchases and happiness is Ryan Howell. An accessible introduction to his research was written by by Candace Manriquez for marketplace.org, and an older reflection from NPR on spending during the holidays can be found here

I will focus for a moment on a recent article in the Journal of Positive Psychology by Paulina Pchelina and Ryan Howell.  Their study found that, given the reality that experiences bring more happiness than material purchases, people still assign more value to material items. Howell believes this is a mistake because people overlook the value of happiness in terms of overall health, wellbeing, productivity at work, etc. The researchers found that when they directed their participants to to prioritize purchases that bring happiness, it led them to favor experiential purchases. 

As someone who has worked in the tourism industry for many years, I have seen first hand the value in providing these experiences.  While a client pays to hire a sedan, SUV or bus, a driver, and a tour guide, they are the vehicles that deliver what is really being purchased–the experience.  I myself have been enriched by having a part to play in my client’s trips to DC. Some have been students on school trips.  Occasionally I have encountered a student years later and they tell me how meaningful their trip was.  I have led tours for honeymooners, couples celebrating a wedding anniversary, parents taking their child to college for the first time, veterans groups, family reunions, and so on.  This research reinforces my belief in the value in what I do as a tour operator.  I have no doubt that the experience of a private tour provides a great deal of value in the form of happiness for those who are willing to spend.