Researchers have found that a bad vacation can cause more grief than the purchase of poor-quality goods of equivalent price.
The study is the first to compare the after-effects of experiential and material purchases on the happiness levels of buyers, both when the purchases went well and when they did not.
"If someone invests in a vacation instead of a new kitchen, and the vacation turns out great, they will be happier than if they had spent the same amount on an excellent kitchen," said Dr. Leonardo Nicolao of the M.J. Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
"But if they had a horrible vacation, they will feel much worse than if they had bought a horrible kitchen.
"The traditional belief is that, when people have disposable income to spend for pleasure, buying a recreational experience brings more happiness than acquiring tangible objects of equivalent price.
"In examining earlier research, we noticed that a strong link was assumed between experiential purchases and happiness. But this assumption had not been thoroughly tested," he added.
Nicolao and his co-authors found that, in general, the link holds true when consumers feel the purchases were positive.
Negative outcomes, however, produce very different results.
He believes the reason is that people adapt more slowly to experiences than to material acquisitions. It's a process known as hedonic adaptation.
"Hedonic adaptation means that buyers get used to stimuli of a hedonic nature. For instance, when someone buys a car, they may be very happy initially, but soon they get used to driving it. Then it's just a car," he says.
Similarly, when people are displeased with a purchase of consumer goods, they soon adapt to the situation.
By contrast, when people buy an experience, they revisit it in their memories long afterward, in a sense allowing them to enjoy the experience over and over - or to relive the agony, depending on how it went.
The study showed that experiential purchases elicited more emotion than did material purchases. They brought more happiness than material goods when outcomes were positive and greater unhappiness when outcomes were negative.
The study appears in Journal of Consumer Research.