The Science Behind Investing in Experiences Instead of Things

We are the sum of our experiences

Sep 20, 2016
Woman sliding on a zip line in an adventure park (Shutterstock)

Spending money on experiences and adventures brings us longer-lasting joy than any material good ever could. (Shutterstock)

If you ask people what they want to achieve in their lives, they’ll probably give you a wide range of answers, most of which boil down to one simple thing: they want to be happy. But what makes us happy? Countless researchers have devoted their careers to answering this age-old question, and Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich is one of the main voices of this field. Over the past decade, Gilovich and other researchers have found an abundance of evidence that experiences - as fleeting as they may be - result in longer-lasting happiness than things. In one recent study, Gilovich found that experiential purchases are also more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior.

Looking back on purchases made, experiences make us happier than possessions do - for the simple reason that material possessions deteriorate over time and the novelty factor that got us excited in the first place quickly wears off. With an experiential good like a vacation, this does not apply. Experiences are either not around long enough to become imperfect, or they are imperfect, but become sweeter in our memories and stories as time passes. And eventually, even a bad experience becomes a good story in our heads.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” said Gilovich. "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."

Gilovich and his co-authors also studied anticipation and found that while anticipation of an experience causes excitement and enjoyment, while anticipation of receiving a material possession causes impatience. Experiences are enjoyable from the very first moment of planning the event, all the way through to the memories you will likely cherish forever. "You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation," Kumar, a co-author of the study told the Atlantic, "and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive. Or when the two-day shipping on Amazon Prime doesn’t seem fast enough."

There are far-reaching conclusions for society as a whole that can be drawn from Gilovich’s research. "Well-being can be advanced by providing infrastructure that affords experiences, such as parks, trails, and beaches," he explains. The not-so-surprising conclusion is that things may last longer than experiences, but the memories that stay with us are what matter most.

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David has a passion for languages and words, and loves to see people happy. He writes about inspiring ideas, amazing technologies and all the wonders of the world.