Let’s say that you recently came into a bit of money. What would you do with it? Would you rather buy a bunch of high quality gadgets and products, or go on an expensive vacation to a unique and exciting locale?
Personally, I’ve wavered between the two. I like my gadgets more than most, so I’ve probably spent more on electronics than your average person. That said, I’ve been on trips taking me all across the United States, and I definitely think I am better off for it.
Luckily, the question of whether to spend your money on products or experiences has been answered by science, and thus you’ll no longer have to worry about whether you should choose one over the other in the future. So what is the verdict? According to San Francisco State University, people are far more satisfied when they purchase experiences, than they are when they buy material objects.
And yet, most people, including myself, are prone to spending our hard earned money on things like clothes, shoes, gadgets, jewelry, cars, and the like. We do this because these things are tangible: we can hold them, use them, etc. When we buy experiences, all we have are the memories, and thus, it seems like we’re getting less out of our purchase.
What that study reveals, however, is that in the long run, we cherish our memories and experiences far more than the things that we buy. And it makes sense. Decades from now, will you remember your cross country trip that took you to the Grand Canyon, or that Xbox you waited in line for all night? Probably the former.
Let’s break it down into simpler points. Why exactly are people who buy experiences, rather than objects, happier?
1. They have plenty of memories to fall back on.
Professor Thomas Gilovich out of Cornell made a point of saying that while new things are “exciting to us at first,” they quickly become blasé as time passes. Soon enough, they’re a mundane part of our daily existence that adds little if anything to the amount of joy we feel on a daily basis.
We’ve all felt this with our smartphone purchases. For the first few weeks, they’re so amazing that you just can’t stop using them. You do everything on them: text, e-mail, web browsing, e-reading, and more. In about a month, though, you get used to it. You start treating it like a “thing,” rather than something that actively brings you happiness.
I’ve often asked myself why so many people have smartphones with cracked screens. Is it because so many folks are simply that clumsy? After doing the research for this article, I’d have to say no. It’s because people stop seeing their smartphone as “valuable” over time, and thus, they’ll treat what was once an expensive purchase with the kind of reckless abandon that leads to drops, scratches, and inevitably, cracks.
Those who spend the majority of their income on experiences, however, don’t have this problem. While they may not have the latest smartphone, they are likely more well-traveled, and thus have far more life experience. While others need to keep buying new products to keep their spirits up, those who buy experiences can always fall back on their good memories when they need to. It’s much like comparing a sugar rush to a good nap. One is more instantaneous, but the other has more lasting benefits.
2. They reap the long-term benefits.
With over 79 million millenials in the United States (three million more than the amount of Baby Boomers), we are bound to change the way that things work.
One part of this comes from the fact that we’ve grown up during an economic recession. As such, we haven’t had the luxury of being able to spend what little money we have on objects with fleeting value. Instead, we’ve been focusing on long-term investments like higher education and travel.
Indeed, when I was in college, I noticed how many of my peers chose to save their money for traveling abroad, or to make student loan payments, rather than splurge on alcohol or other purchases typical of young adults.
Not only does this save resources in the long run, but it allows us to forge an identity in a world where it’s becoming harder and harder to find one’s place. And doing so, according to researchers, is a crucial aspect of growing up in today’s world.
3. They share their experiences with others.
As introverted as I am, I must still admit that I am happier when I have a bit of social interaction now and then. Additionally, conversing with others is always more fun when you get to recount some kind of unique experience to them. Indeed, Peter Caprariello and Harry Reis examined this phenomenon in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. What it found, essentially, was that experiences make us happier because we get to share our memories with others. Buying objects leaves us feeling more hollow because they are normally things that we use by ourselves.
It’s probably why, in one study, researchers found that those anticipating an experience (like waiting in line to see a play), rather than the purchase of an object (like waiting in line to buy an iPhone), were found to be much happier. It’s because they knew they were going to experience something that they could share with other people. Something that will help them connect with others in a particularly unique manner. As nice as a new iPhone is, in the end, it’s just one smartphone in what’s likely to be a long line of smartphone purchases in your lifetime.
This kind of happiness-related research is already having a major effect. Indeed, you can find several articles (like this one) detailing the lives of those who traded in their material-based lifestyle for one centered around things that are more substantial, such as travel and education.
While it’s obviously impossible to completely stop buying material objects, we can stop basing our happiness in terms of how many nice things we own. As these studies show, what truly brings us enjoyment and fulfillment in the end are our experiences, and the resulting memories that we get to share with our family and friends.
Featured photo credit: Couple/Mo Riza via flic.kr