“Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.” – Benjamin Franklin
In countless research studies it has been shown time and time again that experiences tend to bring us more happiness than material possessions. But why exactly is this the case?
In The Hedonic Benefits of Thrift, psychology researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Joseph Chancellor outline seven reasons why experiences tend to provide us with more happiness than possessions.
Let’s take a look at the reasons.
1. A possession is a potential pleasure, but an experience is an active enjoyment.
Experiences often involve us actively doing something – climbing up a mountain, hiking a trail, swimming in a lake, taking pictures of the scenery around us. We are forced to be active, to create the experience for ourselves. We find more joy and happiness in being active participants rather than passive bystanders.
The authors suggest:
“Rather than constantly buying new possessions, a thrifty strategy is taking what one already owns and doing something new with it. For example, one could take along family and friends in an adventure in one’s car, throw a party on a new deck, or download a new app for one’s smartphone.”
2. Possessions are predictable, but experiences are full of surprises.
Research has shown that people adapt to possessions much more quickly than experiences. Part of the reason for this is because experiences offer more variety and unpredictability. As humans we tend to take much longer to adapt to situations when faced with variety.
When we buy a new painting to hang on the wall, we don’t even notice it after two weeks. We adapt to it and it simply becomes another thing to surround ourselves with. On the other hand, experiences offer more potential surprises. When we plan a picnic at a park nearby we have no idea who we’ll see there or what type of wildlife we’ll encounter. This provides a greater opportunity for surprises – and when we’re surprised we tend to remember the experience for much longer.
3. Possessions break, but memories keep getting better.
Possessions are prone to crack, break, malfunction, and eventually stop working. It’s merely a matter of time until they become useless to us and we’re forced to buy a replacement or an upgrade.
But memories can live on for many years as Lyubomirsky and Chancellor explain:
“In the same way that a family story gets more exaggerated and funny each time Grandpa tells it, memories become more positive as time passes—a phenomenon known as “rosy recollection” (Mitchell et al., 1997). When recalling college, people may fondly remember cherished friends and zany weekend adventures, but not the homesickness or the stress of term papers. When replaying experiences in our mind’s eye, like a zealous movie editor, we often leave the boring and forgettable scenes on Thrift 34 the cutting room floor to produce a more enjoyable flick. But possessions, such as cars and gizmos, just accumulate scratches and dents, until they end up in a junkyard or landfill.”
All our possessions will eventually find their way to a junkyard, but our memories are free to be shared and enjoyed with others for many years.
4. Possessions cost money, but many experiences are free.
The best part about most experiences is that they’re free. It doesn’t cost a dime to spend time in nature. One of my favorite articles on the benefits of spending time in nature comes from Mr. Money Mustache in his article Get Rich With: Nature. Here is an excerpt in which he explains how nature offers free entertainment:
“There are obvious monetary benefits to doing things the natural way as well. Walking and biking are far more natural activities than car-driving. And they also come with enormous financial and health benefits. Nature-based leisure activities often come with a very low price tag, especially when done close to home. When you’re planning your own free time, you should start with the natural activities, like just walking somewhere, having lunch in the park, reading a book down by the creek, and biking around town to get things done. Only after these basic, satisfying things are accomplished, do you even need to think about doing anything else with your time. There’s already so much to be done out there!”
5. Possessions do not satisfy our deepest needs, but the right experiences do.
We have a tendency to think that the next material purchase will finally be the purchase that makes us happy and brings us lasting joy. But this is never the case.
We all seek fulfillment in life and the most common misconception on how to obtain this fulfillment is through material possessions. Luckily for us, experiences can bring us real satisfaction in a variety of ways, as Lyubomirsky explains:
“Even when basic physical needs are met, people still crave competence, autonomy, and connections with other people. An experience, rather than a possession, is more likely to address one or more of these needs. For example, even the most mundane activity—such as buying groceries or visiting the doctor—becomes fun when a friend comes along. Activities are more naturally shared, anticipated, and relived with others, and doing so can build and strengthen relationships. Experiences often involve unexpected challenges or adventures, which can help us learn and build competence. Conversely, once bought, continuing to possess something is rarely a challenge, unless one has overspent and a creditor is repossessing.”
6. Products invite comparisons, but experiences stand apart.
This is by far my favorite reason why experiences are better than possessions. With possessions, we have a tendency to compare what we have with what others have. This comparison game never makes us happy. But experiences are much less likely to be compared.
Lyubomirsky illustrates how experiences are far more resistant to comparisons:
“No sooner does one buy a 30 GB iPod than a 40 GB version hits the market at the same price. But trips, adventures, and excursions, because they are richer, more variable, and more individualized, resist comparisons to a larger degree. One pair of newlyweds explores a California beach while another jets to a Costa Rican rainforest. Unless one works as a travel agent, equating the two vacations takes a Thrift 35 good deal of effort and imagination. Also, the crucial aspects of any memorable experience may be the most difficult to compare. Even if Sally had gone scuba diving like her roommate, she would not have had the same awe-inspiring glimpse of a whale shark. Although Ben’s honeymoon was shorter than that of his friends, only he enjoyed the company of his wife.”
7. We are the sum of our experiences, not our possessions.
Our possessions do not define us. Since possessions are material in nature, they’re prone to breaking, being lost, or simply being forgotten. They’re often temporary. But experiences craft us into who we are. All experiences – especially difficult ones – shape us and mold us as people.
Lyubomirsky points out:
“People identify with their experiences far more than their possessions. Possessions always remain apart from us—tucked away on a shelf or in storage. But experiences are encoded into our existence and our ‘affective endowments’. They become a part of us—in our minds and memories. One cannot help but carry them everywhere.”
These seven reasons illustrate exactly why experiences are better than possessions. They’re free, they bring us fulfillment, and they provide us with lasting happiness. And the best part of all? You don’t even have to leave your own backyard to have memorable experiences.
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