Another Christmas has been and gone. Another three-month period of panic-inducing online ordering and store-shopping is once again behind us. The Boxing Day sales now try and lure us into spending our hard-earned cash on more stuff. If Christmas was about buying for other people, now’s about buying things for ourselves.
It could be a pair of discounted designer jeans that promise to make you look and feel sexier than you’ve ever felt before. It might be a new car that pledges to give you more status than you could dream of. Or instead it could be the latest gadget that vows to revolutionise your life, only a few months after the last model promised to do the exact same thing. Everywhere you look the message seems to be: “Buy this and you will be happier!”.
But is this the case?
Professor Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University’s Department of Psychology certainly doesn’t think so. For more than 20 years Gilovich has been researching how much happiness material purchases bring us in comparison to experiential purchases. And the results are clear – the path to happiness is in buying experiences, not things.
To Do or To Have
It’s not a new idea but Gilovich’s work provides a more thorough understanding of exactly why buying experiences brings us a greater sense of satisfaction than buying possessions. Firstly, experiences bring us longer-lasting happiness. This may seem counter-intuitive when you think that some objects are designed to last years, if not decades. You’d think that an expensive sofa with a lifetime guarantee would mean a longer sense of satisfaction than a two-week holiday in the south of France but research suggests that the opposite is true.
The key reason behind this is that people quickly become used to items that they are in contact with on a regular basis. That sofa soon loses its sense of novelty and quickly becomes part of the furniture (pun intended). That brand, spanking new iPhone might have given you thrills when you first got it but after a few months of using it every single day, it’s unlikely that you hold it in quite the same regard. You may even be thinking of the next upgrade already. In psychology it’s known as the hedonistic adaptation.
In comparison, a two-week holiday is fleeting – it’s limited by time and we don’t have enough time to tire of the experience. We’re soon back into the drudgery of our daily existence and that fortnight in the sun, eating delicious food and enjoying our time with friends and loved ones, becomes a gold mine of memories that you’ll recall throughout your lifetime. You’ll look back on that experience and wish you could do it all over again, and because it was a one-off, you’ll appreciate it all the more.
Before and After the Purchase
And the funny thing about memories is that they are malleable. They are not the unbiased recordings of facts and events that we like to think they are. What this means is that over time, as we recall our first visit to India or our first solo adventure, we attach more positive feelings to our memories. An experience that we may have been a little blasé about at the time is now a memory that brings us joy. And oddly enough, a bad experience that we couldn’t wait to be over is now an amusing anecdote that gets others, and even yourself, laughing whenever it’s told.
It’s not just the aftermath of purchasing experiences that make us happier. There’s also the anticipation of the upcoming experience that brings us pleasure. No doubt this is something we’re all familiar with – you’ve booked that incredible adventure to Myanmar (for instance) for next year and now you’re counting down the days until you head off to explore the stupa-filled plains of Bagan. That period of waiting is going to be filled with excitement as you imagine just how great the experience will be. On the flip side of this, unless you’ve been saving for months to buy a high-ticket item that you’ve been pining for equally as long, that sense of anticipation for a material purchase won’t come close to that of an experiential purchase. With our instant-buy, 24/7 consumer society, you’re more likely to feel impatience and annoyance that you’re having to wait for the delivery man.
Experiences and Identity
We are not our possessions. That new car does not define us and although that laptop may belong to us, it is not a part of who we are. On the other hand, experiences are a way of exploring our identity and building character. Gilovich believes “we are the sum total of our experiences” and it’s certainly true that our experiences in life colour our outlook and challenge our beliefs. By sampling as many new experiences as we are able to, we can discover new passions and interests that lead us down new and exciting paths. Even difficult experiences teach us new things about ourselves and provide the opportunity to confront our fears and see what we’re really made of.
More often than not experiences also provide the opportunity to connect with others. The people you share your experiences with may be one of the best things about that particular experience and even become life-long friends in the process. More social interaction means better health and a longer life, according to studies, so opting for experiences shared with others has the potential to bring you even broader benefits.
The Options Are Endless
Like the overwhelming choices of things to buy, there’s a never-ending supply of experiences out there to discover. Never before have so many people been able to see so much more of the world. It’s now possible for many of us to experience a hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara or a cruise around the karst islands of Halong Bay. We can add trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or walking beneath the Northern Lights in Iceland to our wholly plausible Bucket List and one day tick them off.
The point I’m making? You’ll never run out of new experiences to try!
But an experience doesn’t always need to involve a long-haul flight and weeks of holiday. An experiential purchase could be a 10-week salsa dance course or language lessons. It could be a concert ticket, a festival ticket or a theatre performance. It could be a camping trip in your home country or a weekend spent playing the tourist in your hometown. You don’t even need to make large purchases when it comes to experiences to enjoy a slice of happiness. If that two-month-long safari adventure from Nairobi to Cape Town is still out of budget than apply these ideas on a smaller scale – spend the evening learning a new skill or try something you’ve never done before with friends or family.
The truth is that basing our happiness on what we own is not going to bring us long-term fulfilment so why not make it your New Year’s resolution to choose experiences over things?