When I look back on my life and take stock of the things that have made and make me happiest, I don’t think about the material objects I’ve procured. I don’t think about the money I’ve made or the cars I’ve owned or the possessions stashed away in my garage. I think about the experiences.
There are the grand adventures: I did Outward Bound when I was 17. It was 28 days of rigorous experiences in the wild of New England — moment to moment instances where I had to “be here now or maybe die” — that majorly shaped the rest of my life, and for which I will be ever grateful. A journey to Europe alone at 22 with a backpack, a Eurail pass, and no agenda or itinerary (before the days of smartphones and apps and online reviews that eliminate the mystery of travel if you let them). The annual 10-day trip I take with my extended family to a part of the world we’ve never been. These are relatively expensive undertakings, and one could say “well, you could have purchased a new car, or updated your wardrobe, or remodeled your bathroom and have had a more ‘practical’ and ‘long-lasting’ use of the investment.” After all, a trip is over when it’s over, but that car will always be in your garage, they say. But the lasting images, feelings, impressions and life lessons of the experiences are always of greatest value to me. And having kids is at the top of that list.
There are the smaller, more private adventures: My friend Eric and I were out paddling one day when we came across a very friendly and interactive pod of dolphins. We see dolphins up close fairly frequently, but these guys really wanted to play, so for 30 minutes we chased them (or they chased us). But, alas, Eric is a dedicated photographer and was agonizing the whole time over the fact that he didn’t have his camera. So as we paddled past his beach house, he bailed on this once in a great while real-time experience to paddle in and retrieve his camera. So he could possess the images on film (or digitally) rather than in his memory. While I continued to play with the dolphins for another 20 minutes, he chronicled it from his front porch. I win.
Or small investments like a fabulous dinner with close friends, a great bottle of wine, and a total disregard for the clock. Traveling with a child to a soccer tournament, or, later, a trip to visit colleges. These all cost money and don’t add to an accumulation of things (the wine is drunk, the food is digested, words shared between friends vanished into the night), but are infinitely more “valuable” when you can pull up the recollection and access the feelings whenever you want.
In my own life, and I suspect in most lives when they actually sit down to consider the issue, the things that change you most, that resonate for a lifetime, are experiences. And although my focus on experiences over things is at odds with the way our societies and economies are constructed, it’s not new. It’s ancient. It goes way back to our essential natures as nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Nomads are limited by what they can carry. We don’t have a perfect picture of what life was like for them or what possessions they carried with them, but we can make some strong guesses based on studies of extant nomadic peoples. They have the essentials — food and the tools to procure and prepare more of it, materials to build shelters, vessels for water, baskets, craftworks, maybe some music instruments — and little else. If they want to remain lean and agile and mobile, they can’t be lugging around furniture and wardrobes and TVs. Marlowe’s observations of the Hadza people of Tanzania support this.
Marlowe catalogued Hadza possessions. As you’ll see, there are very few extravagances:
Nothing requiring vehicles or pack animals. Nothing bulky or onerous enough to make moving camps (which happens around 6-7 times a year) a huge chore or undertaking. Nothing wasted, everything used. There’s no big box of CDs you haven’t listened to in years but still keep lugging around every time you move to a new apartment for some reason that escapes you. No amorphous contractor bags filled with junk and labeled “miscellaneous.”
And that’s how we all lived until about 10000 years ago: as nomads. If it shaped our dietary requirements, I think it’s possible it shaped how we derive happiness and value from the world around us, too.
Modern research confirms the general superiority of experience over material objects. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor out of Cornell, ran a pair of studies in 2003, finding that if you ask people from various demographic groups to reflect on past purchases, they say that buying experiences made them happier than buying material objects. If you ask people to think about making purchases, those who pondered buying an experience rated the process as more positive than those pondering buying a material object.
Buying experiences clearly made people happier than buying material objects. But why?
Experiential purchases provided added value in the form of anticipation. A trip abroad isn’t just the trip. There’s the planning, the fantasizing about the food you’ll eat and the smells you’ll smell and the markets you’ll peruse and the haggling you’ll do, the butterflies you get when you finally pull the plug and receive email confirmation for your plane tickets. For months, you revel in the glow of anticipation and derive happiness and value from that — without even actually having taken the trip yet. Compared to the pleasurable anticipation of experiential purchases, waiting to receive a material purchase is usually an unpleasant experience. What’s better: waiting for your friends to arrive for a dinner party or waiting for the new iPhone to come out?
Even when an experience is negative, you get a good story out of it. That vacation you and your family took in Hawaii where it was rained the entire time and you spent an entire day holed up in the hotel lobby eating Spam might not have been the getaway of your dreams, but it made for a heck of a story when you got back. And when you look back on that trip, you can’t help but laugh to yourself.
No matter how much you like them, materials objects are always separate from you, but your experiences become part of you. In a series of studies, researchers examined how we relate to different types of purchases. When telling their life stories, participants were more likely to mention their experiential purchases than their material purchases. They were more likely to describe experiential purchases to explain their sense of self identity. And when hearing about another person’s purchases, they felt the experiential ones offered greater insight into that person’s true self than the material ones. You are what you do, not what you own.
Deciding on a material purchase is harder and more unpleasant than deciding on an experiential purchase. With material objects, you’re more likely to “ruminate about unchosen objects,” and this makes you less satisfied with the object you choose. The grass is always greener. It’s easier (and less stressful) to decide where to go on vacation than it is to decide whether you want to buy a plasma or LCD television.
You’re more likely to regret paying for a material object. When it comes to experiences, we’re more likely to regret not paying for it. We almost never regret actually going to the concert, checking out the art exhibit, or forking over the money for the plane tickets. But how often have we lamented dropping fifty bucks on the gadget that became obsolete the next day? Things can be replaced, and something better is always around the corner. Not paying for the experience, though, is a missed opportunity.
Okay, all this makes sense, but what about the material objects that really do seem to make us happy? If you really think about it, most of the material objects that confer happiness do so because they enable and enrich our experiences.
My standup paddle board is absolutely a thing, but it’s enabled countless memorable experiences out on the waves, including the experience with the dolphins that I’ll never forget and constantly revisit.
Books are material objects that convey an experience: you read them.
Food is a thing, but then you prepare it, and it becomes a meal.
A brand new chef’s knife is a material possession that enables the experience of slicing effortlessly through a flat iron steak.
A cookbook holds the promise of months and months of new culinary experiences.
An Olympic weight set is a one time purchase that lasts decades and makes you healthier, stronger, and fitter for the duration.
But you guys get it. Whether it’s the time you invest reading this blog and implementing the changes in your own lives, or the money you spend finally getting a decent commercial mayo or furthering your health and wellness education, you understand the value of experience. Because you’re not merely buying objects. You’re investing in your own health, and a healthy body allows a person to fully engage with the world and obtain experiences without the encumbrance of physical dysfunction.
Yes, you need to have a few “things” for security, but after basic needs are met — healthy and tasty food, comfortable shelter, transportation, companionship, Internet access — there’s not much more reward to the bigger, the better, the faster. A nice new car is great and all, but half the time you’re thinking “Man, I hope I didn’t park my new car too close to that other guy. Now I’m going to worry about a door ding while I shop.” Believe me, I know, because I have a number of bigger, better, faster items in my inventory, and while they provide short term hedonistic hits, the highs don’t last very long, and often you wind up resenting the fact that often these things own you.
So to answer the titular question — What’s better to spend our money on: experiences or things? — I say experiences. By far.
What’s your take, folks? What do you value most — experiences or objects? Do the results of the research, and the lessons of the nomadic Hadza, jibe with your experiences? Or have you regretted your vacations and found lasting happiness through material possessions?
Let me know down below. Thanks for reading!
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