We're sure you already work hard most of the year, and at some point, you deserve to reward yourself with a little something from your hard-earned money. But while getting the latest gadget or a limited edition bag is exciting for now, you might consider going on a trip instead. Material things excite us for a short time, while memories brought by experiences linger.
Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University in the U.S., conducted a 20-year study, which found that happiness fades more quickly when you spend money on things. It’s called “The Paradox of Possessions,” and there are three critical reasons why the feeling quickly disappears.
One is we easily get used to new things. Buying the latest smartphone might seem fresh, different, and interesting now, but the more we see and use it, the faster we get tired of it.
Second, purchasing new things lead to new expectations. If we’ve succeeded getting the latest smartphone now, we’ll also be itching to get the upgrade the moment it comes out. It’s better, faster, and newer, after all!
Lastly, we’re fond of making comparisons. Say you bought an expensive stroller. You love it because it’s sturdy, functional, and pretty. But when your friend visits with another stroller that has better features, you cannot help but wish that you bought that one instead.
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Gilovich tells Forbes. “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.”
Why experience makes us happier than material things
Experiences become a part of our identity. Everything we’ve seen, the things we’ve done, and the places we’ve visited all become ingrained in our minds and affect us in some way. Buying an iPhone will make you happy, but being exposed to a totally unfamiliar culture will leave a mark forever.
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” Gilovich explains. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
The comparison of happiness between material things and experiences is more evident in kids. According to another psychologist, Oliver James, “Family holidays are valued by children, both in the moment and for long afterward in their memory. So, if you’re going to spend money on something, it’s pretty clear which option makes more sense.”
Also, kids consider memories from family vacations as “happiness anchors,” which can help them get through tough times. Reflecting on these happy memories with the family can bring relief and respite even when the kids have become older.
Even unpleasant experiences can eventually lead to happiness. One study conducted by Gilovich showed that if people went through something that hurt their joy, their assessment of that experience changes or goes up once they are given a chance to talk about it. Gilovich says this might be because a scary or stressful event in the past can become a funny story to tell once a person can look back on it. It then becomes a character-building experience.
Lastly, we foster connection through shared experiences rather than shared material things. You’re not likely to form a strong bond with another person who bought the same TV as you — instead, you’ll have stronger ties with family who went on a vacation with you.
“We consume experiences directly with other people,” shares Gilovich to Fast Company. “And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.”
Experience builds anticipation
You heard the latest smartphone will drop in September. You can’t wait for the date to arrive, and your anticipation leads to impatience. Now compare that to booking tickets to Japan for the same date. As the date leading to your vacation leave nears, don’t you feel excitement and enjoyment? Experiences become fun the moment you plan it up to the moment that you’re making memories.
At the end of the day, you are the one who’s earned money, so what you spend it on is completely up to you. But if Gilovich’s study is any indication, material things may last longer than experiences, but the memories that experiences leave behind is what you will come to value the most.