photo credit: Simon Matzinger

The Science Behind Why You Should Buy Experiences, Not Things

Picture this: You’ve just finished working your busiest time of the year. For all your efforts, you receive a nice paycheck.

To reward yourself, you look for places to spend your hard-earned money. What would you choose out of these options?

  • A brand new TV or a vacation abroad?
  • A piece of jewelry or a multi-course meal at a restaurant?
  • The latest phone model or a class on learning a skill?

All of these questions point towards how we should spend our money. Should we spend it on material objects that will likely bring enjoyment, or on new experiences that have uncertain outcomes?

When faced with this decision, choose the experience. Here’s why.

The Material-Experience Paradox

On average, an object has a longer duration than an experience. While a new couch can be used for decades, a trip to Bermuda that costs the same only lasts for several days. With this logic in mind, wouldn’t it make sense to go for the couch?

Economically, maybe. But from a happiness standpoint, science shows otherwise.

After two decades of research, Dr. Gilovich, a Cornell psychology professor, has come to the conclusion that experiences provide greater joy than things.

He explains, “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”

No matter how excited you are to open up a brand-new device, it eventually becomes another piece of your home. You get used to it. In order to spark those fireworks in your brain again, you need to purchase something newer and better.

The experiences you purchase, on the other hand, are temporary. A day trip to the local museum. An hour-long painting session. A month-long tour of Asia. All of these activities eventually come to an end.

The fact that they don’t last is maybe one of the greatest advantages they have over material objects. Experiences are outside your regular routine, so you savor them while they last. Objects last past that initial point of excitement, which makes them lose their luster over time.

From an intrinsic viewpoint, experiences also create different feelings within us compared to things.

Why Experiences Affect Us Differently From Objects

When people describe something as “life-changing”, they typically refer to an experience they had, as opposed to a possession they own. It turns out, there’s a reason for it.

Dr. Gilovich explains that our experiences form a larger part of ourselves than the objects we own. So no matter how much you love your shiny new car or your spacious house, they still remain separate from you. Rock-climbing in New Zealand and snorkeling in the Caribbean, however, are experiences that shape who you are. They become part of your identity.

Since our lives are basically an accumulation of events, it makes sense that experiences have greater impacts on us than what we own. An unusual event might force you to adapt somehow, learn something new about yourself, or develop a mindset that you didn’t consider before.

For instance, while sharing a laugh with a street vendor in Columbia might last only for a minute, the realization that you can connect with someone from a different background can teach you the universalness of humor.

Gilovich also found that people have more regrets when they forgo experiences, as opposed to when they forgo objects. Experiences are difficult to replicate, while possessions can be acquired later. When you miss out on going to a fun event with friends, you can’t relive the stories that happened.

So far, expanding your perspective and minimizing regret seem like good motivators for choosing experiences over things.

The Uncertainty of Experience

But the problem with experiences is that there’s a large degree of uncertainty. For this reason alone, we hesitate before signing up for something.

What if we go on vacation somewhere, only to hate it and want to go home? What if we join a class, but then end up disinterested? What if we go to an event, only to stand in the corner by ourselves?

These are all valid reasons for not wanting to be proactive and do something.

The research shows that it’s worth taking the risk. Even if an event didn’t go as expected, Gilovich found that people tend to speak positively about it. Even when we go through something that we didn’t enjoy, our memories of it tend to improve over time.

For instance, let’s say you went on a trip with friends, only to become drenched in pouring rain. It’s hardly something you would wish for. But there are some positives to take away from it.

For one, you can use the time to bond with other people. You can also remember with a smile how you jumped across the puddles to enter a gift shop and find souvenirs while waiting for the rain to pass.

The fact that these experiences differ greatly from your routine probably contribute to the fuzzy feelings about them.

One of the best reasons for choosing experiences over things, though, is the fact that experiences are more difficult to quantify. When you purchase the newest phone model, you might feel good about it initially…until someone else shows off a superior model.

Experiences, on the other hand, are more difficult to compare. Sure, if someone’s headed to the Maldives and staying in a luxury hotel, you might feel envious. But it doesn’t automatically mean that their vacation is better than your backpacking trip. Each experience is different.

Signing up for an experience gives you a ton of possibilities to imagine, which builds up the anticipation. You might make new friends, learn an interesting custom, or walk away with a different insight on life.

Things, on the other hand, are predictable. They’re safe. They’ll give you an outcome you expect. And for this reason, many people choose possessions over new experiences — despite what they could potentially gain otherwise.

Choose Something New, Gain a Lifetime of Memories

Although the research points towards opting for experiences, we need both objects and experiences in our lives to some degree. It wouldn’t make sense to go on adventures at the expense of everyday necessities or long-term savings.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that we all fall on different parts of the experience-object scale. Some people chase after the thrill of new sights, smells, and sounds, while others revel in finding shiny objects to place in their home.

But if you find yourself falling into the second category time and again, why not opt for a trip somewhere new or a fun class? While you’ll have one less blender at home, you could find yourself gaining the memories of a lifetime.

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