In the consumer-driven culture we live in, it can be difficult to understand that there are things in life that mean more than our material possessions. Our relationships with others and our experiences, however, do offer us more value than any amount of stuff.
It’s hard to recognize it because we are bombarded with advertisements, radio commercials and pop-ups on our browsers the moment we walk into a shop. No matter where you go in any commercial district, there is something trying to sell you something. People want what we have—that new car smell or that fancy computer that everyone has around us. The more expensive, the better.
The consumerist culture has permeated every part of our lives and there is little room for anything else. But if we look back at what we value, it’s not that new TV, or those shoes with all the extra buckles—it’s our relationships with family and friends that create the most value in our lives. But those material items, material goods, material objects don’t bring us greater happiness.
It doesn’t end there—our experiences with strangers can also provide us more meaning than anything we own could ever do.
What are some of the things that you have purchased that now sit collecting dust? It’s not like they were worth much to begin with, right? But those experiences—the trip to Canada, the time you spent with your family at their house, or that amazing concert you went to with friends—that is what truly mattered.
What’s going to matter more in the future? What will have greater meaning in a few years? It’s going to be those experiences, not the stuff we own and surround ourselves with every day.
Why You Need to Buy Experiences, Not Things
Happiness Derived from Stuff is Fleeting
A 2010 20-year study from Cornell University showed that people were more satisfied when they spent money on experiences instead of on material purchases. A second study from San Francisco State University says the same thing: people who buy experiences over things are happier.
Our experiences are unique to us and cannot be compared to the experiences of others. But when we have stuff, it’s all too easy to compare what we have to what someone else has and to feel like our own possessions are being judged by our social circle and on social media (where there’s too much envy over the latest and greatest things to buy).
Our social relationships in the past decade have only increased – and so has our desire and need to buy things. Yet, we are more and more unhappy.
We can even become unhappy after buying things: we second-guess our purchase, spend time thinking about all the things we didn’t buy, and we quickly move on to wanting the next latest and greatest item on our wish lists.
It’s worth noting that possessions that offer a limited amount of happiness and enjoyment won’t last forever, either. Your favorite sweater will eventually become threadbare, the car you thought you had to have will one day no longer run, and your gadgets and electronics expire faster than some of the food in your pantry. Everyone does have basic needs that need to be taken care of, don’t get me wrong. But new purchases bring a fleeting happiness that can’t be replaced with life experiences.
Instead of investing your time and money into stuff that is unfulfilling and will wear out sooner or later, focus on trying new things and building important relationships.
This is what is referred to as experiential purchases – defined by Van Boven and Dr. Thomas Gilovich as things that people live through and experience. On the other hand, things that you buy to own are material purchases.
The Happiness of Anticipation
One important thing that Thomas Gilovich has found is that anticipation for an event brings more happiness than the anticipation of a material good. This is hugely important to note because we spend a lot of our lives waiting (and the average mind spends an estimated 47% of the time wandering). That’s a long time. So what are our minds spending all of that time waiting and wandering to?
The Importance of Trying New Things
If you’re not convinced that money spent on new experiences is far more valuable than what you spend on stuff, consider this: when we experience something new, our brain processes that information differently than it processes familiar situations.
The way in which the brain handles new experiences changes how we perceive time. Familiar information is quickly recorded in the mind and makes it seem like time is passing more quickly; new experiences, however, are processed more slowly which makes time feel like it is moving slower.
The value of having time slow down as we age can’t be overstated. If we want to get the most out of the rest of our years, we need to seek new experiences.
The anticipation of an experience can even bring us greater happiness than the experience itself. And definitely far more than any material item can. It can be hard to recognize, but oftentimes our cycling of buying things is one of the enemies of happiness.
And even a bad experience brings more long-term happiness than a physical item.
Related: Things Your Need to Try in Your Twenties
Why We Need Solid Relationships
Relationships with other people are necessary because they provide us with things we cannot provide ourselves. We depend on others for companionship, affection, and support. Without these factors, we feel lonely, sad, and depressed. Having healthy relationships with others positively affects our overall health and well being – and there are few things more valuable in life than our good health.
In the end, we are the sum total of our experiences. It’s not the things that we bought that mattered, it’s the experiences we had along the way that became a part of your identity that defined who you are.
Why Things Are a Waste of Money
Material things only offer us a fleeting, superficial happiness that fades as we quickly shift our focus to the next big thing available for us to buy. Relationships, on the other hand, offer us lasting joy, support, comfort, companionship and love and have positive impacts on our physical health.
If you’re still not convinced that money spent on experiences is a better investment than money spent on things, consider this: people who spend $5000 a year on vacations are far happier than those who don’t even take one vacation each year.
Material stuff is just that: tangible things that probably cost too much money.
The Benefits of Experiences
Trying new things has the power to change our perception of time; feeding our brains new information on a regular basis can help us avoid that all-too-familiar feeling that time is flying by faster and faster each year. Only people and experiences – not more stuff – can provide us with real and lasting value.
It’s hard to put a price on the satisfaction that comes from contentment. There are some experiences that you simply will never be able to replace, like walking your children down the aisle at their wedding or watching your favorite team win its first title in years. And when you’re 80 lying in bed, which memory will feel more satisfying – reliving an experience that was fun at the time but didn’t really have any long-term value or basking in the feeling of a life well lived?
Most of us live with physical objects we regret buying and lifestyle habits we wished we hadn’t started. But by spending money on experiences, you create memories (instead of stuff) and change lives for the better.
In today’s world, if you’re on the pursuit of happiness… it looks much different than previous generations (like the baby boomers). The basic finding of all this research is clear: buy experiences, not things. Investing in experiences over things will help you lead a more rich life.
Spend less time thinking about the latest smartphone and what’s on Amazon prime (even if it can get here with two-day shipping). Spend more time thinking about a delicious meal, outdoor activities like camping with friends. New possessions and even a high salary are less important than things like social interaction. Make your time count.