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Who knew the path to happiness was in our wallets this whole time?

Apologies to whomever said otherwise, but you can buy happiness. At least you can spend on happiness. It’s one of the go-to mantras of our age: spend more on experiences, and less on things, and you too will find greater fulfillment. It sounds so noble, so aspirational. And yet, it’s provable, backed up by years of studying the habits of consumers. The trick to following it? We have to put the brakes on our urge to buy so much stuff.  

Let’s imagine a specific, real-world spending dilemma; Your phone is four years old, it does what a phone needs to do, but you’re ready for something bigger, better, fancier. However, … you’re dying to go on vacation for the first time in years. You’ve got the destination picked out — that far-off paradise your mind wanders to every Monday morning. The dilemma is: you can only pick one. Phone or vacation. 

No need to answer … yet. But if you’re looking for the best way to spend your discretionary money, the vacation delivers more happiness per dollar. Turns out, a lot more.  

Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University spent twenty years asking people the following question: which use of money provided greater happiness, a thing they bought or an experience they bought? By almost two-to-one, participants choose experiences, and the reasoning is fundamental. They chose what ultimately matters most: time with family and friends, creating lasting memories and sparking social experiences. 

The problem with things

You’d be right to ask, “How can a thing, which is permanent, provide less happiness than an experience, which is fleeting?”

And the fact is, things do give us joy. Until they don’t. For pretty straightforward reasons.

The thrill doesn’t last 

What’s new and novel inevitably becomes common and routine. The happiness we get from acquiring any single thing is destined to fade. “Hedonic adaptation” is the clinical name for it. In everyday terms, it means nothing is so amazing, so profound that it won’t eventually be absorbed into our daily living. And there’s little we can do to get back the thrill, except of course, buy more stuff. 

It’s never good enough

Think about unboxing that new, gleaming smartphone—with that new-phone smell. Yet from the moment you power it up, the countdown is on until you want something better. Most of the things we buy are placeholders until a better version of it comes along. Your current phone may take dazzling pictures, but when another phone arrives that takes even more dazzling ones? Then that’s the phone we want. 

We can’t outrun the Joneses

Your couch may be as comfy as the day you bought it. But if it’s out of style? It may have to go for no other reason than you don’t want it seen in your home. People buy new cars to declare “they’ve made it.” Designer labels give them a newfound status. It’s the classic “keeping up with the Joneses” burden. Our possessions can’t help but define us. And if we’re not mindful, we wind up spending less on ourselves and more seeking the approval of others. And what does that have to do with anything that’s deeply meaningful to us?   

The superior value of experiences

So, what makes experiences such a better buy? Vacations can get boringly familiar too. The concert or play could be a dud. Experiences come with no guarantee. And yet, the very lack of a guarantee is a reason experiences deliver a bigger return on your long-term happiness. 

Experiences shape who we are

Recall the new smartphone again. Do you get the same thrill today as when you unboxed it? Not likely. Now, pick the best vacation you ever went on. How much has that memory diminished? If it’s joyful memory, has it become any less joyful today than the day it happened?

Things tend to lose their special-ness, but fond memories get etched onto who we are. They become one more chapter in our life story. Take even the so-called “vacation from hell.” Maybe not a single thing was good about it—at the time. Yet when we get home, and even for years to come, we’ll tell our friends how awful it all was, down to the last disastrous detail. How often do we want to talk about a phone we broke ten years ago? 

Experiences are sociable

As a general rule of conversation, we know talking about our possessions at a party isn’t likely to win many admirers. As social creatures, we yearn more to hear other people’s experiences: the good and the bad, the thrilling and the depressing.

Let’s say you splurge on a new laptop. That’s a worthy conversation topic—for five minutes, ten minutes max? Now, conjure up that amazing trip to another country. That’s a topic of conversation that could sustain an entire dinner. We’re simply less interested hearing about things people acquire than the lives they’ve lived.

The waiting is the greatest part 

It’s been said you should never buy anything on impulse. One reason: when you buy on impulse, you forfeit all the anticipation you could have enjoyed while you waited. When you book tickets to your favorite band two months from now, you’re not just getting one concert, you’re enjoying two months of looking forward to it, of daydreaming about it. 

Here’s the best part though; The way we wait for an experience differs from waiting on a thing. For an experience, it’s about the buildup, the joy of knowing it will happen. Whereas waiting for things is apt to make us impatient, even irritable that we don’t have it already. Think about the general mood of people waiting in a long line at an amusement park. Compare that to the mood of the line at a Black Friday sale. Which of the two lines do you want to be in? 

The argument against

Right now, plenty of us live beyond our means and have the debt to prove it. There’s always a third way to spend money: Don’t spend it all. You won’t create any cherished memories, but isn’t knowing you didn’t overspend its own kind of happiness? The “experiences not things” assumes that your daily needs are met and your bills are taken care of. Being conflicted over whether to splurge on a phone or vacation qualifies as one of those problems that are “nice to have.” Sometimes not spending is the choice that may make you happiest. 


One last thing

It’s more than fair to ask; Why can’t a thing can also be an experience? An RV is a significant thing that allows you to experience the whole country. Or that souvenir from a trip abroad; Sure, it may be another trinket on a shelf, but maybe this little thing reconnects you to a time and place like no photograph can.  

The tug-of-war between experiences and things isn’t meant to be settled. Of course, we’re not going to stop buying things. As a way to shine some clarity on what’s important though, and what’s worth our hard-earned money, “experiences not things” is a compact, useful mantra to keep around. It’s a way to reboot our priorities when we find ourselves wrestling over how to best use our limited monetary resources. Maybe you need a new phone. Maybe it’s time. Or maybe it’s worth putting up with it another year while you see how much vacation it can buy.  

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