Why the Key to Happiness Lies In Your Experiences (Not Things)


Imagine this…  you're walking through your local shopping centre when you spot a demonstration for the new and improved kitchen mixer. You already have one at home which works well and makes cooking relatively simple, but it's not the "bigger, better and more digitally advanced" version. Your commercial instinct says you want it. Your inner chef says that life will be incomplete without it. So what should you do? Should you swallow the $2,000 price tag and buy one?

According to Dr Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, no, you shouldn't. Instead you should take that money and spend it on dining out. Why? Because life is about experiences and not things.

The research

Research tells us that while material creature comforts are exciting at first, we soon take them for granted. This concept is known as the " Easterlin Paradox", and suggests that even when living standards improve, there's no guarantee than happiness will improve alongside it.

Most people are in the pursuit of happiness and while it's true that money can make you more comfortable, that only applies until your basic needs are met. If you continue to allocate your money towards buying bigger and better goods, money won't do much to increase your overall enjoyment in life.

Dr Gilovich says, "One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. 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."

In a study that measured how adaptation affects happiness, Dr Gilovich and his team found that while material purchases lost their shine over time, experiential purchases became shinier. It's counterintuitive to think that a physical object that keeps for a long time would keep you happier for less time, but once-done experiences outshone every time. Even bad experiences appeared more prominent in the mind, because stressful, unpleasant or scary experiences turned into funny experiences or valuable lessons further down the track.

Essentially, happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, while both good and bad experiences become an ingrained part of our identity.

Making connections

Another part to choosing experiences over material purchases is the idea of connections. Think about it – you drive around town in a black Mazda 3 and so too does the neighbour down the street. Each day you wave to each other, but that's as far as it goes – you're not really connected despite having similar tastes. You are, however connected to the colleague you once drove home from work, even though it was uncomfortable and full of awkward silences. Why? "We consume experiences directly with other people," says Dr Gilovich. "And after they're gone, they're part of the stories that we tell one another."

Spending your money

So what does all this tell us about how to spend our money?

In short, it tells us that spending money on experiences will always produce greater happiness than spending money on material goods. It tells us that life is about living in anticipation, gathering stories, and creating memories. It tells us that happiness is in the content of moments rather than things. It also tells us to plan our moments, building on our experiences to include mind-altering eagerness.

Eagerness comes in the form of booking in advance. You might think you can get this by pre-ordering the new iPhone, but research says that waiting for a possession is more likely fraught with impatience instead of anticipation. Compared with the booking of a restaurant, holiday or an activity, waiting for goods to be delivered or to become available can be very frustrating. Waiting for a delicious meal on the other hand…

The anticipation leading up to a trip, event, or experience has the potential to provide happiness itself. So too does the actual trip, event or experience. So too does the recap of the trip, event or experience when you look at photos or share a story. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

Beats the heck out of a cupboard full of gadgets right?

How to choose experience over things

Experiences come in many forms and some may last an hour while others may last days or weeks. You can choose to buy experiences for yourself, for a loved one, for a colleague or a client, and begin benefitting from the many perks of experiential gifts.

If it's your mother's birthday coming up, why not buy her tickets for her local community theatre? If your best friend just became engaged why not buy them a Good Food Gift Card that allows them to discuss wedding plans in the comfort of their favourite restaurant? If your partner has a love for science, why not purchase tickets for an upcoming science expo? Your options are limitless, and remember, even if they don't like it, it's an experience that will stay with them forever. Unlike the gift that sits in the cupboard until the day it meets the op shop.

Want happiness that lasts? Buy experiences.

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Mireille Kilgour

Mireille Kilgour

Mireille Kilgour has been an entrepreneur for 35 years in the hospitality sector. French born, she has been an accomplished business owner and operator for a number of Sydney venues. Leading the industry with high profile institutions such as Lamrock Café Bondi, she has endless passion for the industry, and now has the pleasure of supporting restaurants to fill their tables with the new Good Food Gift Card program.