Thursday, May 16, 2013

Happiness...and Experiences

My best friend packs parachutes for a living.  The job has an obvious perk: it allows him to jump out of airplanes.  He loves talking about it and it's rare that any of our conversations are completely skydiving-free.  Skydiving makes him happy.  Just look at those two on the right: how could it not make you happy?

When I think about what makes me happy, I recall the things I like to do and have done, not the physical objects I have.  But a cursory look at our consumer landscape shows that retailers are meeting our desire for possessions more than trying to sell us experiences.  I see more stores filled with stuff than places simply selling experiences.  Where is the disconnect?

Admittedly, a lot of purchases fall into a grey area: a meal out is both a tangible thing to put in your belly as well as an experience.  A bicycle or a new pair of running shoes are similarly tough to categorize. But even with tangible objects, Lyubomirsky notes that "it appears that the happiest people are those who are most skilled at wringing experiences out of everything in which the invest their money, whether it's a guitar, a plane ticket, a picture book, a dress, a camera, cake decorating lessons, or running shoes."  Still, as I look around my house, I notice a lot of stuff, hardly any of which I interact with so, by definition, I'm not getting any sort of real experience out of these things.  Everywhere I look, there are books that sit and are not read again, furniture that does little more than collect dust and hold other stationary nick-nacks, and boxes of stuff in the garage that literally has not moved in years.  I can pretty confidently say that very little of this stuff brings me happiness any longer.  The things I do like, like my bike and my computer and, ugh, my television, seem to make me happier because they're experience machines.  Still, why is that?  Why would experiences be more efficient at bringing me happiness than tangible objects?

Lyubomirsky gives us some explanations, based on a survey of psychological research.  Here's the short list:
  1. Possessions don't tend to change, so we (hedonically) adapt more quickly to them
  2. Experiences are more social
  3. Possessions are more easily compared than experiences, leading you to feel bad when your 'thing' seems worse than someone else's
  4. Because possessions can be easily compared, one can consider a possession's opportunity costs (i.e. - what better thing might I have purchased, instead of this piece of crap)
  5. Material objects deteriorate over time; memories of experiences improve over time
  6. We identify with experiences -- not so much with things
  7. Experiences commonly involve challenges to be overcome -- they bring a sense of accomplishment
  8. A focus on gaining possessions has other, hidden costs (e.g. - research shows their relationships suffer)
None of this may be that groundbreaking, because even a quick search on the internet shows a bunch of studies stating that experiences yield more happiness than possessions.  A lot of people are writing about this wisdom.  But are we taking the advice?  Other than bar flies, foodies, and gym rats (how happy can you be running on a treadmill, anyway?), I don't see a lot of experience purchasing happening in my neck of the woods, or in my own budget, either.  And what good is this wisdom if I can't put it into action?  So for the next thirty days, I'm not buying any physical objects, besides groceries.  I can buy experiences (say, a meal out or a Groupon for a horseback ride), but no material things.

I will say that my wife was not very pleased with this declaration when I told her about it today, as our anniversary is coming up in a couple weeks.  I did give it an honest shot and asked, "Given all this psychological research, wouldn't you rather just have an experience?"  No.  No she would not. She wants a thing (a pretty thing, at that, in addition to the experiences of dinner and a movie, she clarified.)  And, no she will not tell me what thing to buy...meaning I have to actually be thoughtful and creative and romantic. Yikes!

Upon further review, I am okay with this exception, because I have already felt the "experience" of not giving my wife what she wants, and I can confidently say that there is no happiness in it.  So, there's our one exception: a gift for my beautiful, and very understanding, wife, but that is it.  And I'm pretty sure we can both find some happiness in the giving, too.

*Photo by Abi Skipp at Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. Hi - I've just spent a cold and wet Sunday afternoon reading your blog which has been a great 'experience'. I recently had a birthday and made everyone promise not to buy me 'stuff'. Instead my husband paid for two nights in a hotel in London (we live in the UK) where we spent two wonderful days walking the streets and admiring the sites. My parents bought me theatre vouchers for a west end show which we saw when we were there and my kids paid for us to have dinner out one evening. The most memorable birthday I've had plus the benefit of no additional clutter in my house. Keep posting as I'm really enjoying your blog.

    1. Thanks so much for that comment, Debbie. That made my day, and I'm so happy to see someone go back and read the old articles. Back in February 2013, I don't think anyone was reading the blog.

      That time in London sounds rad -- I'm sure the memories of the trip will be worth much more over the years than some trinket.