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Why Experiences Matter More Than Things

A 20-year study conducted by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, reached a powerful and straightforward conclusion:

"Don’t spend your money on things”

Amongst the findings were:

  • The trouble with things is that the happiness they give us fades away all rather quickly. This is because the excitement and adrenalin rush we get from purchasing new things fades rather quickly because we get used to them rather quickly. Of course, there are nuances to this, but it came out as the general theme – lack of longevity.
  • Purchasing things leads us into raising the bar each time we do. So we tend to get used to our new purchase quite quickly and begin looking for the next best thing, or an upgrade on the thing we have bought.
  • Another critical finding was that possessions, by nature, foster comparisons. There’s always someone with a better version, or a better model, which leads to us feeling a sense of dissatisfaction.

As Gilovich says:

“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 quite quickly.”

We believe that when we buy something, the happiness we feel will be everlasting – that it will last as long as the thing itself. But it doesn’t and we are fooling ourselves each time we do it.

Gilovich found that experiences on the other hand, however fleeting they may be, deliver longer lasting feel-good effects. This is because:

  • Experiences form part of our identities. Buying a great handbag isn’t going to change who we are yet taking part in an incredible experience, such as kayaking with killer whales off Vancouver Island, will likely change the way we see and feel about the world and bring us closer to nature.  As Gilmour says:

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. 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.”

  • Comparisons don’t matter as much. Some people may be competitive about where they’ve gone and what they’ve done, but we don’t compare experiences in the same way that we compare things. In a Harvard study, when people were asked if they’d rather have a high salary that was lower than that of their peers or a low salary that was higher than that of their peers, a lot of them weren’t sure. But when they were asked the same question about the length of their holidays, most people chose a longer holiday, even though it was shorter than that of their peers. This is because it’s actually very difficult to quantify the relative value of any two experiences, which makes them that much more enjoyable.
  • Experiences are fleeting (which is positive). We quite often find that once we’ve bought something, that either guilt or disappointment sets in. We start to question its value – was it worth it, should I have bought it, did I need it? And because it’s ‘a thing’ it’s there to remind you of this all the time. Yet we don’t, however, do this with experiences.  The value of an experience gives us intrinsic benefits and the positive memories stay with us for a long time and often even increase over time. Much of this is to do with the fleetingness of an experience – we make more of it because it is short.
  • The thrill of anticipation. Gilovich studied anticipation and found that the thought of buying a new possession causes impatience, whilst looking forward to an experience caused excitement and was thrilling. The enjoyment of an experience begins at the moment of planning it all the way through to the memories you cherish for years to come, even a lifetime.

Gilovich and his team aren’t the only ones who believe that experiences make us happier than things. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia also researched the topic. She attributes the temporary happiness achieved by buying things to what she calls “puddles of pleasure.” In other words, that kind of happiness loses its hold on us quickly and leaves us wanting more – either to keep up with the Joneses or satisfy our subsequent feelings of inadequacy, longing or disappointment.

Things may last longer than experiences, but the memories that linger are what matter the most.