BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Whenever I ask a friend if they would like to accompany me on one the magnificent trips I’ve planned in my head, the answers range from, “It’s just so expensive to fly anywhere,” to a definitive “I don’t have the money.”
I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of this too. But then I stop and think about the shirt I bought at the mall last weekend—not much different than the fifty other shirts hanging in my closet. Or about the expensive gourmet milkshake I bought on my way home from work. Today, I barely remember what it tasted like. Perhaps investing our money into things that matter—experiences that shape and change who we are such as concerts, festivals, hobbies and travel—are the things that will provide us with maximum happiness.
According to Fast Company, it has been determined that experiences are far more likely than material goods to lead to happiness. This idea was explored in 2003 by psychologists Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven, who have identified several key reasons why.
When you buy a bad material good, like a pair of shoes that hurt your feet or ill-fitting clothing, not only are you stuck with the item, but also with the fact that you made a bad decision. Bad experiences however, can often seem better in our heads than what they actually were at the time. For example, a person who went to DisneyLand is likely going to remember the good—meeting Mickey Mouse, the rides, the treats and the shows. And forget the bad—the long line-ups, the crowds and the whiney children. Our memories bring forth the best parts of our experiences and everything else fades away.
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Gilovich. We adapt to objects much quicker than we do experiences. At first your new iPhone is exciting and new, but after a while you adapt and get used to it and it doesn’t bring as much joy as it did when you first bought it. When I look in my closet I see a ton of clothes, some of which I’m bored with or never want to wear again. “I have nothing to wear,” is a phrase that gets tossed around constantly—right before I go out and buy a bunch of new clothes and stuff them into my already full closet. On the other hand, I never get tired of going to the beach. Even though I do not physically have anything to show for going, I always have fun, and each time is a little bit different.
Choosing between different cars or computers is difficult because you worry not only about making the best choice, but also the status implications of your choice. Items can be directly compared—your flat screen TV is bigger than my flat screen TV—which makes it easier to be unhappy with what you have. Experiences are harder to compare and less likely to make you regretful. You could have gone on a better vacation than I did, but I still have my own memories that make my vacation unique and special to me.
According to Fast Company, flow is a mental state, first identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that you get into when you are effortlessly engaged in what you are doing. Flow is essential for happiness and experiences generate flow better than material goods. For example, it is easier to focus and become engaged in a game of basketball or while surfing, than it is to focus on a pair of shoes or that new desk you bought.
The difference between waiting for an experience and waiting for a material good is night and day. With material goods, waiting is annoying and we seek instant gratification. With experiences, waiting becomes a form of anticipatory pleasure. Most often the excitement comes from waiting for something like an upcoming trip and the impatience comes from waiting for a purchased good, like a sweater ordered off of eBay.
Experiences bring us closer to other people and they also make for better conversation. Would you rather hear about the chair that someone bought for their living room or what they did last weekend? You’re also more likely to bond with someone over both having hiked the Appalachian Trail than you are over both owning Blu-Ray players.
Experiences contribute to, and become a part of who we are, much more than items. Just ask yourself this: would you rather give up an item in your house or an experience you had? Most people would choose the item. Experiences shape who we really are—material goods only portray how we want other people to think of us.
There’s an assumption that because a physical item lasts longer, it will make us happier for a longer time than a one-time experience. This is a huge misconception. Experiences—even negative ones—build our character, and something that may have been stressful or scary in the past often becomes a funny story to tell at your next party.
So before you claim that spending 60 dollars on a concert isn’t worth it or travelling is too expensive, consider what you are investing into. Your clothes will go out of style, and your new iPad won’t last forever, but as Maya Angelou put it, “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot—it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”