Absolutely fascinating article in today's Boston Globe called, Happiness: A Buyers Guide. Basically, the article outlines recent studies finding that, while having money doesn't necessarily make people happier, it can increase their happiness if they spend it on and/or with others, instead of spending it on stuff.
A study by Leaf Van Boven with the University of Colorado (go Buffs! Sorry, it's my alma mater) and Tomas Gilovich with Cornell University, "found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in," said Van Boven in the article. Here's the kicker:
Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social - when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can...
And while we quickly grow accustomed to a new suit or a bigger house, no matter how much we originally loved it, experiences instead tend to get burnished in our memory - a year after a vacation, we look back not on the stress of dealing with lost luggage or the fights over which way the hotel was, but the beauty of the scenery or the exotic flavors of the food.
What does this have to do with meetings? Well, while it doesn't mention travel incentives specifically, I think its general premise could explain at least in part why travel incentives tend to be more meaningful (and make winners happier) than cash or gift incentives: The money is being spent to create a social experience with others, something that escalates in value over time, instead of a one-time bonus that gets spent and forgotten, or a watch that's nice, but not really joy-inducing in the same way.
Another project the article discusses, conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky at University of California at Riverside and Michael Norton with the Harvard Business School, found that people who gave away money to charity or gave it away with gifts were happier than those who spent it on themselves.
So the rise in incentives that do good while rewarding people for doing well seems almost like a no-brainer, doesn't it?
I have to include this bit, too, just because it made me laugh, then made me think:
Seen this way, blowing money on a bar crawl with friends isn’t necessarily a waste of your hard-earned paycheck - it’s something of an investment. And a generous philanthropic donation is also an act of hedonism even more gratifying than a new Lexus or a handmade watch.