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Material gifts, durability and our common future

A few days before Christmas, this clickbait headline caught our attention: “Suck it, Hippies: Study Shows Material Gifts Can Bring Happiness“.

We dutifully clicked through, expecting some pseudo-science to tell us to run to the shopping centre. Gizmodo told us

Experiential gifts gave people more intense happiness during the experience, and could give them happiness on occasion over time. Material gifts, meanwhile, had staying power, making their owners much more frequently happy

Our first reaction was: ok, in spite of the annoying headline, this could be interesting, perhaps this study can make an argument for longevity, for selecting gifts that will last over time.

The study this post was based on was published by psychology researchers from the University of British Columbia. We found the original press release by the psychology journal that published the study. We learn researchers:

…assessed the real-time, momentary happiness people got from material and experiential purchases, up to five times per day for two weeks. Material purchases consisted of items such as reindeer leggings, portable speakers, or coffee makers, and examples of experiential purchases were a weekend ski trip, tickets to a hockey game, or spa gift cards.

Material purchases bring repeated doses of happiness over time in the weeks after they are bought, whereas experiential purchases offer a more intense but fleeting dose of happiness. Additionally, when people looked back on their purchases 6 weeks after Christmas, they felt more satisfaction about experiential purchases.

Wait, what?! The timeframe of this study is a couple of weeks? Are we to assume that these portable speakers and coffee makers only bring happiness for a couple of weeks? Or the duration they spend on our Facebook timeline?

Changing the batteries in children’s lightsabers, before Christmas, we were reminded of the lasting happiness – over the course of years – that some toys can bring.

Emotional durability

We find Jonathan Chapman’s concept of “emotionally durable design” is much more useful than some six-week psychology study. As a designer, he assigns this particular form of durability to an object. His focus: learning and teaching how to create objects that embody deeper meaning.

While we get loads of mobiles and laptops at our community electronics repair events (called Restart Parties), there are certain categories of devices that people tend to truly value and feel connected to over time. Lamps, musical instruments, radios, and hand-held audio devices come to mind. We have seen some amazing devices, and heard some uplifting stories, like this 41 year-old cassette recorder:

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 09.11.27

Perhaps there is an argument for designers getting more creative with devices that we have less connection to.

But then, as non-designers, we also wonder how much the fixing process itself changes the relationship between thing and its owner. For example, how much more connected does a laptop owner feel with their computer after having opened it and having cleaned it? Or having changed the screen? Or even having upgraded the memory?

We will never forget a “stressed” participant in a Restart Party who lost her fear of her laptop, and said that the experience was sinking in, and would hopefully create a “snowball effect”.

We need more research into this aspect of our relationship with stuff.

Durability of manufacturing and retail

These are really important questions, not just for us as activists, citizens, or as an incipient social movement, but also for manufacturers and retailers themselves.

We read that there was a 9% drop in footfall in UK shops in the lead-up to Christmas.

We suspect that retailers are no longer providing any unique meaning to shoppers. If retail is simply a longer, more complex way of getting things than clicking online, retail will continue to shrink. If retail provides new meaning, through social engagement, beyond buying… then perhaps it too can have greater durability. Imagine if people could fix or customise the things they buy in a shop. We did this in Selfridges, at their invitation, in May this year.

Meanwhile, we see that device ownership (minus smartphones) is plateauing in the US. Manufacturers have to choose: either desperately accelerate the “refresh cycle” or find new ways of creating value, deepening and extending our relationship with things – and brands.

What will the future bring? We have the urgency of ecological limits, along with economic strain, to disturb the status quo. There is something exciting about feeling things change around us. But we have to remember that change can be scary, it is not always linear, and the benefits can be very unequally distributed.

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