Experiences More Valuable Than Material Goods When It Comes to Happiness and Social Cohesion

Sunil Iyengar who directs the research arm of the National Endowment for the Arts recently posted on the idea of arts experiences as one way for individuals to create connections with others. He points to two studies conducted in 2020 where people received a text every few hours and were asked to respond about a purchase they had made within that period of time.

Study subjects were asked whether they had made a material (furniture, clothing, jewelry, electronic goods, etc) or experiential (concert tickets, trips, restaurant meals, going to sporting events) purchase.

In both studies, experiential purchases were associated with significantly greater self-reported happiness than were material purchases. Also, because the data collection methods enabled participants to respond within an hour of each transaction, the reports of happiness can be described as “in-the-moment” returns from these experiential investments, the authors suggest.

“People’s experiential purchases, in other words, live on longer and are likely to provide more active, moment-to-moment happiness as they lead people to feel better about themselves and connect more with others,” Kumar et al. write. Stressing the implications of these findings for social connectedness, the authors add that “because experiences also lend themselves more to re-living and sharing memories with others, individuals can also advance their momentary happiness through these types of extended consumption as well.”

Long time readers know that I am wary about any prescriptive claims about the arts curing social ills, raising test scores, boosting economies, etc., so I was pleased to see that Iyengar wasn’t making any claims that carved out special benefits attributable to arts and cultural activities but instead implied they were part of the mix. Certainly, we all recognize that there are many moving pieces that contribute to people having an enjoyable experience, including restaurants, traffic, parking, babysitters, etc.

Enjoyable changes don’t occur in a vacuum where they are attributable to one cause. Last night I idly started to look at Google Streetview in the neighborhoods around where I live and work, flipping back to pictures from 10-15 years ago and it became clear how different decisions by governments, businesses, and developers contributed to the attractiveness of these places and increased availability of local resources as well as the closure of some businesses and increased traffic.

In the same respect, arts and culture contribute to, cultivate, preserve, social connection and cohesion, but aren’t the sole product to be applied to solve issues that face communities.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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