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Spend enough time around us and you’ll hear some form of the phrase “We can’t expect to act differently unless we first embrace having to think differently.” It’s something we practice internally and one of the mantras that guide our engagements with clients. And one of the things we’re on a mission to help people rewire is the way they think about the motivation for their work. And while there are many different dynamics to a concept like motivation, one area I like to focus on is Reward. One of the things I often ask my clients is how they reward themselves for an accomplishment or reaching a goal. This usually elicits one of three responses:

  1. I don’t really reward myself.
  2. I buy myself something.
  3. I take the family on a vacation.

For instance, last week I had the good fortune of reuniting with some of my high school friends in my home state of Maine. As we were eating dinner at my friend Rob’s house, I asked how they rewarded themselves for an achievement or attainment of a goal. Rob says that he buys a new guitar or something for his house (and then pointed to the beautiful cedar patio furniture). Christa said that she likes to take her daughters traveling. Linda said that just the feeling of accomplishment is her reward. Julie said, “One word… wine.” A few things stood out to me about these answers:

  • Even among a small group of people, there are multiple approaches to rewards.
  • Their answers, though varied, could be categorized things or experiences.

But are all rewards created equal? That is, do all rewards have the same effect on our thinking and motivation for our work? For the remainder of this article, I want to explore how we think about rewards, and the impact on both our motivation and happiness.

The case for experiences over material rewards

Ryan Howell, Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University, conducted a study in  which he surveyed people about their anticipated satisfaction with either experiential rewards or material rewards. Participants in the survey reported that they would much rather have material goods over experiential rewards — the logic being that experiences only last for a set amount of time, but material rewards will stick with you longer. However, when Howell and his team surveyed people after their purchases (experiential or material), “What we find is that there’s this huge misforecast…. People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value.”


Interestingly, they also found that experiences were correlated with traits associated with higher motivation such as openness and reward-seeking. 

But the benefit of experiential rewards above material rewards multiplies over time. Studies conducted by Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar looked at how experiential rewards versus material rewards impacted people’s relationships over time. Specifically, the ability to talk about rewards with other people increases the positive effects of a given reward. But they found that people are far less-likely to talk about materials compared to experiences, and, even when they do, the psychological benefit is much less (note the charted scores for their participants).


Taken together, these studies tell us that people tend to gravitate to rewarding themselves with material things, because they are tangible and provide more immediate gratification. And we also believe that, because these rewards are tangible, they will benefit us in the future. However, we’re wrong on both counts. Buying a nice watch might be an attractive reward for the sales quota you blew away. But after a while, it’s just a watch. Experiences, on the other hand, are much more rewarding, motivating and longer-lasting than material rewards.

Getting even more from rewarding experiences

We’ve just discussed the ways that experiential rewards beat materials rewards, but the benefits of these experiences can be multiplied when you share it with someone else. Loretta Graziano Bruening has looked at the way that our social interactions can impact our well-being at a neurochemical level and the reasons behind this. For instance, whenever we intentionally participate in sharing an experience with another person, we stimulate the neurochemical oxytocin, which has been shown impact our ability to read the emotions and non-verbal communication of others, build trust with others, and a host of other interpersonal dynamics.  And sharing experiences with others can also spark other neurochemicals, particularly those related to happiness and goal-seeking. In fact, simply telling the story of an experience with someone else will stimulate these sorts of neurochemical responses. Telling someone about something you own… not so much.


For example, a few years ago, some friends and I decided that we wanted to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to celebrate our “big birthdays.” It was a reward of sorts for all the hard work of getting that far. Looking back on the trip, we could have been better prepared, and we rather blindly committed to holding each other accountable for making the trip happen. But we still pushed forward, held each other accountable and we made it! The experience of being at the top is one I will never forget, and as hard as it was to do, it continues to motivate and inspire me to take on other difficult challenges. And that motivational dynamic is reinforced every time I get to connect with my fellow climbers or share the story with someone else.

3 takeaways to get more from your rewards

  1. While rewards are important, not all rewards are created equal — so be intentional about your rewards.
  2. Experiences have been shown have a larger positive effect on sustainable growth and happiness than material rewards.
  3. When possible, see if you can leverage the multiplier dynamic of shared experiences. Who’s out there that you can share the reward with?

Let’s start now! Leave a comment in the comments section and tell me about your rewarding experiences. I’d love to hear about them.


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