Experiences Over Things

We get more happiness from the experiences we have than the stuff we buy.

Americans buy (and store) a lot of stuff, so much stuff that self-storage facilities have become a booming industry over the last decade. In 2021 an estimated 10.6% of American households (13.5 million households) rented space in self-storage facilities. These are people who have so much stuff they can’t fit it all into where they live and, instead of getting rid of some of it, have chosen to rent more space.

Physical objects last longer than fleeting experiences and so it would seem logical that the happiness derived from these objects should be equally as long lasting. Unfortunately this is not the case. Multiple studies have shown that experiences make us happier than objects do. The novelty of objects and the happiness we get from them tends to wear off fairly quickly once we become accustomed to them. Even worse, the longer objects are with us the more likely they’ll break or in some way become a frustration. Your fast new computer eventually becomes a slow & buggy headache. Further, when it comes to gift-giving, most people give physical objects that they feel will make the recipient happy, but these gifts really just contribute to the cycle of more stuff and less happiness. Experiences are different.

“Let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Experiences (not things) make us who we are

The happiness associated with an experience (a vacation, a concert, going to an art exhibit, learning a new skill, etc.) can actually increase over time. Even a negative experience can eventually become more positive after enough time passes. A rainy vacation isn’t as fun as it could have been, but after a while you can appreciate the bonding time you had indoors with your family or friends. At the very least it can make for a good story, which, talking about a bad experience has also been shown to improve your assessment of an experience.

Our experiences become a part of who we are. We bond with other people over shared experiences – we don’t bond over owning the same smartphone. Further, we are less likely to negatively compare our experiences with those of others. It’s fun to talk about traveling and share recommendations with one another. This is different than comparing possessions which (in a “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of way) tends to be negative. Is your car as nice as your coworker’s, is your house bigger than your neighbor’s, what is the number of carats in her diamond ring, etc. Unlike comparing experiences, comparing stuff doesn’t make us any happier.

As the 2014 study Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases put it, “Experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having).”

Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks shares his life advice to, “Everyday, once a day, give yourself a present.”

The Hedonic Treadmill

Knowing when to step off the treadmill and be happy

Hedonism is about finding pleasure and avoiding suffering. It ranges from the wild to the mild, but essentially it is a way of thinking where we want to be happy and should seek out ways of making ourselves happy.

The hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) is an idea where each of us has a default level of happiness, and that our happiness will return to this default level despite life changes. If we make more money and start living a fancier lifestyle, what might make us a bit happier at first, soon becomes the new normal and we return to our default happiness level. We get more, we get used to it, and then it takes even more to make us (temporarily) happier again. It’s an arms race where it can constantly take more to feel happier and it can go on forever. Whatever the change, we tend to get used to the new speed of the treadmill.

The good news is that it also works the other way around. If we lose a job or some catastrophic accident befalls us, we can adapt to that as well and (over time) return to our default happiness level. In his TED talk on the science of happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses a study of both lottery winners and people recently paralyzed and that after a year both groups had returned to their pre-incident level of happiness. The treadmill can speed up or slow down but your happiness level will adapt.

Epicurus

Epicurus was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher who created a school of philosophical thought, known today as Epicureanism. While the word “epicure” means someone with fine taste in food & alcohol, Epicureanism is a much deeper collection of teachings that have little to do with food. Epicurus was a hedonist, in that he felt happiness was good and pain was evil, however he taught that we should enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Happiness can be achieved through friendship and living a simple life. Perhaps it’s best to know when to step off the hedonic treadmill and appreciate what you have rather than running faster for more.