Consumerism has its fair share of critics, and without question most people who have given thought to these things know that you can’t buy happiness. But how should we spend your disposable income to maximize your happiness? And why doesn’t that new iPhone make us happy for longer than it’s first battery cycle? Mark and I talked about this, and how experiences make us happier than things, on his Radio Live Sunday show this week. (Click here to listen to the interview)
Research by Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has clearly shown that when we purchase experiences like holidays, meals out or tickets to events, they make us happier, and happier for longer, than the purchase of material possessions.
At first glance this can seem counter-intuitive; experiences are fleeting and leave us with only memories, but a new couch or iPhone is with us every day. So why it this the case?
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich… …”We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.” (Click here to read the whole article)
Essentially once the novelty wears off, our possessions fade into the background. A new car becomes, just a way to get places. This is opposed to experiences which become part of who we are: our identity is formed by our experiences.
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says 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.” (Click here to read the whole article)
But by far the most unexpected result from this research is that not only do experiences make us happier, but over time the happiness associated with that memory increases. Over time we tend to more fondly remember the holidays away, smudge the tricky bits, romantacise getting lost as character building.
We also don’t tend to compare experiences in the same way as we compare things: it’s OK that experiences are subjective. I might hate the band you went to see last night, but I totally get why it’s so exciting for you. In that way we tend to feel less envy, and are better able to allow ourselves to experience our own, and allow others, happiness.
It’s also clear from the research that the experience of looking forward to an experience also tends to increase happiness while we’re waiting for it, as opposed that that agitated, impatient feeling when we’re waiting to buy a new possession.
So if you want to maximize your dollar for happiness spend, then plan events, concerts, holidays, shows, or just a walk with friends. Give yourself enough time to look forward to it, and allow yourself to savor it.
The novelty never wears off time well spent.