What are the best things to spend your money on – possessions or experiences? Some might say that possessions last longer and this contributes to value. Others say that the purchase of possessions is akin to “puddles of pleasure” – that don’t last long before they dry up. Interesting research expands on these ideas.
To have or to do?
Professor Thomas Gilovich (Cornell University) suggests experiences make people happier than possessions and spending money on them provides more enjoyment and an investment in yourself. Why?
Despite the suggestion that a possession will last longer and that experiences are fleeting, the researcher proposes that experiences are remembered long after they have occurred. Possessions are largely forgotten about – we “get used to them”. On their own their novelty-value can be short-lived. Possessions that enable you to have different experiences are somewhat different eg a car to facilitate travel experiences is quite different from a car as something to “have”.
Experiences make people more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships. (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003).
Three ideas to consider
- Experiences have a more significant social impact than possessions.
You can recount (and in so doing, relive) experiences and share them with others. Recounting a purchase has more limited ongoing social value and people are not so interested in what you bought as what you did.
- Experiential purchases say more about you, by the things you like to do and tend to form a bigger part of a your identity.
We are not the product of our possessions, but of the experiences we have, what we learn from them and how they shape us.
- Material purchases tend to lead to social comparisons, more that the purchase of experiences do.
Comparison is a habit that leads to unhappiness. There will always be someone who has something bigger/better/faster than yours. People seem to see and accept more subjectivity with experiences.
Dr. Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) has also studied the links between money/spending and happiness. She attributes the temporary happiness achieved by buying things to “puddles of pleasure.” That is, the kind of happiness that evaporates quickly and leaves us wanting more. Things may last longer than experiences, but the memories that linger are what matter most.
The cost of experiences
Having a flexible lifestyle means we have a very different set of experiences to those we would have had if we had stayed at home and worked 9 to 5 in well-paid jobs. The price of flexibility is a different earning capacity and therefore different needs in terms of possessions. The benefit lies in the experience – the enjoyment of a more fluid life, engaging in more diverse activities with a variety of people. It goes without saying that lower stress levels and a less hectic pace of life have all sorts of well-being dividends for us too.
What about you? Does this ring true for you? Do you get more from your possession purchases or the experience ones?
Kelley, Susan. 2013. To feel happier, talk about experiences not things. Cornell Chronicle. 29 January 2013
Ratner, Paul. 2016. Want Happiness? Buy Experiences, Not More Stuff Big Think.
Van Boven, Leaf & Gilovich, Thomas. 2003 To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 85(6), Dec 2003, 1193-1202.