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Experiences make you happier than possessions, says science

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Every now and again a school by the name of ‘science’ ambles in and gets our backs, we rejoice.  And on this occasion those scientists – Dr. Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar would be their names, if they had names, which they do – and their research (recently published in Experimental Social Psychology) contends that if lasting happiness is the thing you’re after, you’re better off spending your money on experiences, rather than…things.

Here’s why.

Muddle-heading though it may sound, physical objects, by virtue of their inherent enduring physicality, are less likely to proffer lasting happiness than experiences that are temporal and fleeting by nature. Might sound a point a little hard to push, right? On the one hand a good couch could bank you ten years of thoroughly enjoyable snuggle times; on the other, a bungee jump three seconds of exhilaration.

Image c/o 55Laney69, Flickr

Thing is, this isn’t how our brains see it.

An integral aspect of our human constitution is a process psychologists have coined ‘adaption’. Basically, our brains – incredible pieces of human engineering that they are – are designed in such a way that, by and large, enables us to trudge through life’s shoddy runs. Simply put, we adjust to stuff. Woes come, they suck, they suck some more, then our resilient dispositions dull the pain and we move on.

The unfortunate flipside of this is that this also happens to life’s good things. A new car isn’t quite as thrilling to drive the hundredth time as it was the first; that new dress not quite so enchanting to step into the tenth time as the second.

And this isn’t just because we’ve become accustomed to our possessions. New things have sheen to lose. Our possessions, once wonderful, are fated to becoming slow or natty, faulty or faded, tattered, scrunched or daggy.

Garry Knight

Image c/o Garry Knight, Flickr

All very little of which, Gilovich and Amir suggest, applies to experiences. Few are likely to recall a fishing trip with the reflection ‘Well, I did enjoy that weekend away at the time… but hindsight now leads me to think it sucked’. No one recalls an exotic sunset with the gripe that the colours weren’t as striking as they first took them for.

If anything, in fact, our propensity is to enhance memories. To daub them with extra colour; attribute them added significance. The sunset was that spectacular. The waves so high. The fish this big. Crucially, Gilovich and Amir found that not only did purchasers of objects experience diminished levels of satisfaction over time, but the satisfaction of those who purchased experiences actually went up.

Because our experiences comprise such an immense part of our identities, so Gilovich and Amir contend, our sense of self is inclined to defend them – and this even holds true for experiences that turned out not quite as we’d have hoped. Charmingly, when it comes to experiences, our default setting is euphemism.

Esmar Abdul Hamid

Image c/o Esmar Abdul Hamid, Flickr

Participants the pair studied proved far more likely to reflect favourably on a negative experiential purchase than a disappointing material one, shrugging the former off as a valuable learning experience (or at least a great story in wait); the latter merely a bung investment. Truth is, we don’t experience disutility in objects the same way that we do experiences. ‘Our holiday wasn’t all that we’d been expecting’ you’ll likely have heard someone sometime recount, ‘it rained most days and the food was disappointing, but, well, it was still good to get away’. By comparison, a strange soul would it take to state: ‘The seam did tear the second time I wore it. But, y’know, keeping dry isn’t everything in a raincoat…’

As it all turns out, we in fact do know that we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. We know this at the very moment we embark on an experience – and that’s what makes them so rich. Over time, our possessions become relegated to mere things. Materials whither, objects abrade. But our experiences amount to us.

During the course of a lifetime, experiences, hopefully more good than bad, adorn our bodies; inform our outlook; furnish our minds. Your scars, your humour, your skills, your triumphs, the things you’ve seen and the places you’ve been – they’re you. They all accrue into that ever-building little bodily bank that bears your being. Experience, literally, makes the (wo)man.

For, at the end of our days, what are we if not the sum of what we’ve done?

Blog c/o Intrepid Travel. 

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