Hold off on that new car — plan a trip, instead

Why investing in experiences will make you happier than buying more stuff

I’ve had some great experiences in my life, and I cherish the memories, but I also feel quite attached to my possessions.  In fact, I have quite a few possessions that I really love.  So when I read the claim that people derive more enduring satisfaction and happiness from their experiences than from their possessions, I was interested to read the research.1,2  Through a series of experiments, researchers found that our experiences tend to give us more long-lasting happiness than our possessions for the following reasons:

  1. Experiences are harder to compare than material possessions.
  2. Feelings about our experiences improve, rather than deteriorate, over time.
  3. Our experiences become a cherished part of our identity.

Theodore Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.”  Our enjoyment and satisfaction with what we have tends to diminish when we compare it against something newer, faster, or better.  Personal experiences, however, are difficult to compare.  For example, it is fairly easy to compare your 2007 Ford Escort against your neighbor’s 2014 BMW and feel dissatisfied.  It is not so easy to compare your family backpacking trip in Montana against your neighbor’s luxury resort vacation in Fiji, because they were such different experiences, each enjoyable for different reasons.  You might recognize that your neighbor’s trip cost more money and was more luxurious, but research shows that even recognizing that other people’s experiences are superior in some ways doesn’t significantly diminish our enjoyment of our own experiences.1

Making fire with hibiscus wood

Attempting to make fire with hibiscus wood at the Polynesian Cultural Center

So why don’t we compare as much when it comes to life experiences?  Well, experiences are harder to align for comparison.  They don’t exist as tangible goods in the physical world.  Our experiences live only in our memories.  For example, when these researchers tested people’s reactions to missing out on something better, they found that people were much more upset when they learned they could have gotten a better product (or a better deal) than when they learned they could have had a better experience.1  Imagine you’re in the market for a new computer.  You carefully review all the options and finally select the best computer for the best price.  You’re really excited about your new purchase.  A couple of weeks later, you learn that a friend got the same computer for way cheaper.  You might feel annoyed?  Frustrated?  You don’t feel quite so excited about your new computer.  Your enjoyment of your purchase is diminished.  This reaction was proven to be less strong with experiential purchases.1  Even if an experience could have been better, like better seats at a concert, those better seats are hard for you to visualize and compare.  Plus, you enjoyed the concert well enough from the nosebleeds.

Experiences are very subjective.  It is much easier to find the good in an experience, even when things don’t go according to plan, than it is to find the good in a lawnmower that breaks down the week after you buy it.  With our selective memories, we tend to focus on the good and forget the bad, so our experiences improve over time.  Even would-be-great experiences that go completely awry become funny to remember over time, and turn into great stories!  While tangible possessions deteriorate and need to be replaced, positive experiences are embellished in memory, and only get better over time.  As Carter and Gilovich put it, “One’s experiences are like one’s children:  You might take note of a neighbor’s valedictorian daughter or a colleague’s team-captain son, but you wouldn’t trade your children, however mediocre their grade-point average or free-throw percentage, for anything, or anyone, in the world.”1

Making memories in Sintra, Portugal

Making memories in Sintra, Portugal

Finally, our experiences become a part of us, influencing us and changing who we are.  We hold our experiences close and dear.  We protect the memories of what we’ve done much more carefully than memories of what we’ve purchased.2  One’s experiences can tell you a lot about a person.  For example, it is much more revealing of my character to know that I ran away from home seeking adventure when I was in the fifth grade, or that I talked my girlfriends into taking a very ill-advised and dangerous road trip to Mexico when I was in grad school, than it is to know that I drive a Honda Odyssey and buy most of my clothes at Old Navy.  In the end, we are the sum total of our experiences.  Our experiences provide lasting satisfaction and happiness because they become part of our identity.2  Even our negative experiences help us become who we are, and are therefore often valued.

Material purchases can be very gratifying.  Like I said, I have many possessions I really love and enjoy using.  Spending money on experiences, especially for you entire family, can seem frivolous or impractical because experiences are so ephemeral and quickly conclude.  I’ve seen this sentiment expressed by my own children.  When they have money of their own to spend, Lincoln, age 5, will always buy candy.  Ben, the older and wiser brother at age 7, tells Lincoln that he should spend his money on something that he can keep and play with for a long time, not something that is going to be gone in five minutes.  But Lincoln is never dissuaded.  Lincoln loves the experience of eating candy.  You may have felt similar concerns yourself when thinking about planning a trip for your family.  Is it really worth the expense?  Should we just stay home?  Valuable life experiences don’t have to be expensive or extravagant.  But there are tangible benefits to spending money on quality family experiences.

I find this one final point to be perhaps the most insightful of all:  “People’s most common regrets about material goods are mistakes of action: buying things they now wish they hadn’t bought.  Their most common regrets about experiential purchase decisions are mistakes of inaction: not purchasing experiences they now wish they had pursued.”2

So go ahead and drive that old Ford Escort for a few more years and take your family to the rugged greenery of Ireland or the medieval castles of Germany!

 

Footnotes / Further Reading

1. Carter, Travis J., and Thomas Gilovich. “The Relative Relativity of Material and Experiential Purchases.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98.1 (2010): 146. DOI: 10.1037/a0017145.
2. Carter, Travis J., and Thomas Gilovich. “I Am What I Do, Not What I Have: The Differential Centrality of Experiential and Material Purchases to the Self.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102.6 (2012): 1304. DOI: 10.1037/a0027407.

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