If you're stuck for what to buy your loved ones for Christmas, results from a new U.S. study could be worth bearing in mind, with researchers from Cornell University finding that people are more grateful, and even more generous, when they enjoy experiences rather than material gifts.

Previous findings have already shown that feeling gratitude can lead to many positive health benefits, including increased feelings of happiness, better health outcomes, improved sleep quality, and even improved social cohesion.

The new research from Cornell has now also found that we feel more gratitude for experiences than for what we own -- and this gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others.

The team carried out six studies to show that experiential purchases, such as travel, meals out, tickets to events, inspire more gratitude and therefore altruistic behavior than material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry and furniture.

In their real-world study they looked at 1,200 online customer reviews, half of which were for experiential purchases and half for material purchases.

Reviewers were more likely to express feeling grateful for experiential purchases than material ones, with Jesse Walker, first author of the study, explaining experiences may lead to increased feelings of gratitude because they lead to fewer social comparisons than material possessions.

The team also carried out a series of experiments to study how gratitude for experiences and material purchases affect pro-social behavior.

In one study, in which participants played an economic game, the team found that thinking about a meaningful experiential purchase led to more generous behavior toward others than when they thought about a material purchase.

"Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new," explains Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University and co-author of the study, "You might say, 'this new couch is cool,' but you're less likely to say 'I'm so grateful for that set of shelves.' But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, 'I feel so blessed I got to go.' People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don't usually express gratitude for it -- or they don't express it as often as they do for their experiences."

Gilovich also believes that governments could use the findings, published online in the journal Emotion, to improve well-being of citizens and improve society. "If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude and happiness and make them more generous as well," he commented, with the team concluding that, "shifting spending toward experiential consumption can improve people's everyday lives as well as the lives of those around them."

Previous research has also looked into what type of spending makes us happier, with a Canadian study published last year finding that maybe money and material possessions could bring happiness.

The research found that both material and experiential purchases gave spenders happiness, but material purchases brought repeated feelings of happiness over time, while experiences brought a more intense, but shorter feeling of happiness.

However, that study also found that when participants looked back on their purchases six weeks after Christmas, experiences gave them more satisfaction.