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Experiences, not things, are the key to deeper social connection

Loneliness isn’t just a fleeting feeling of sadness. Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy labeled it a national epidemic, with health risks comparable to smoking or obesity. To combat this, Murthy urged Americans to strengthen social connections. New research suggests a simple solution: buy experiences, not things.

Retail therapy, experiences and social connections

Dr. Amit Kumar, a marketing and psychology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that experiences could be a key factor in combating the loneliness epidemic.

Kumar posits that the act of purchasing and engaging in experiences can foster “social capital,” the network of relationships and connections that contribute to our well-being.

“What this work suggests is that we might actually be able to build social capital from what we buy. That, in turn, could lead to more health and happiness,” Kumar says.

This concept might seem counterintuitive, especially considering the common association of retail therapy with material goods. However, Kumar’s research suggests a nuanced perspective.

While traditional retail therapy might offer temporary relief, the satisfaction derived from material possessions tends to fade quickly. Experiences, on the other hand, can have a more enduring impact on our happiness and our connections with others.

Experiences for social connections

Kumar’s prior research established that experiences, such as concerts or travel, tend to provide a more enduring sense of satisfaction compared to the fleeting pleasure derived from acquiring material possessions like luxury cars or designer clothing.

However, his latest findings delve deeper into the impact of experiences on our lives, revealing that they don’t merely enhance personal happiness but also significantly contribute to our social connections.

“All of our buying habits are, to some extent, part of who we are, and they can connect us to other people,” Kumar says. “But that’s much more likely to be true of experiences we buy than material items we buy.”

Why do better social connections come from experiences?

To validate their hypotheses, Kumar and his research team conducted seven distinct experiments involving over 1,400 participants.

The results of these experiments provided compelling evidence to support the idea that experiences foster stronger social connections compared to material goods.

Increased sense of similarity

Participants consistently reported a heightened sense of similarity and connection with others who had partaken in the same experience.

This finding suggests that shared experiences create a common ground that transcends material possessions, fostering a sense of camaraderie and understanding.

The research also revealed that beyond social connections, experiences play a significant role in shaping our personal identities.

Participants reported a stronger association between their experiences and their sense of self compared to material possessions.

This implies that experiences contribute to a deeper understanding of who we are and what we value, which in turn can enhance our connections with others who share similar values.

Reduced Envy

Interestingly, the research found that even when faced with disparities in the quality or intensity of an experience (such as front-row seats versus nosebleed seats at a concert), individuals still felt a sense of social connection with others who shared the same experience.

This suggests that the shared nature of the experience itself outweighs any differences in individual circumstances, promoting a sense of community and belonging.

“You feel a significantly stronger sense of connectedness when you find out that you just saw the same band in concert, than when you learn you have the same shoes as someone else,” Kumar says.

Connection to humanity

You might think it’s obvious that experiences make us feel more socially connected because they often involve other people. However, Kumar’s research reveals a deeper insight.

Experiences don’t just increase our connection to the people we share them with; they enhance our sense of connection to humanity as a whole.

People feel a greater “sense of connection to humanity” after reflecting on experiential purchases compared to material purchases.

Experiences foster more empathy and kinship towards others, beyond just those we directly interact with.

Study implications

This research is immediately actionable and offers practical applications for both individuals and businesses.

For individuals, if you’re feeling lonely or disconnected, consider investing in experiences. Engaging in activities like attending concerts, going on weekend getaways, or taking cooking classes can significantly enhance your social well-being.

For businesses, this research suggests that emphasizing the experiential aspects of products can be highly beneficial. Companies can tap into this by creating and promoting experiences associated with their offerings.

For instance, Apple’s Genius Bar provides a personalized, interactive experience, while Nike’s running clubs offer a sense of community and shared activity.

Highlighting these experiential elements can enhance customer satisfaction, increase brand loyalty, and drive long-term success.

In sum, loneliness is a real problem, but it’s not insurmountable. By choosing experiences over things, we can not only enjoy life more but also forge meaningful connections that enrich our lives and boost our well-being.

So next time you’re contemplating a purchase, remember: experiences might just be the social glue we’ve all been missing.

The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.


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