Happiness and Experiences vs. Things

Imagine this: Your birthday’s coming up in two weeks and your friend has bought tickets for (insert your favorite band/orchestra/comedian here)! With each passing day what are you feeling, thinking, doing? Maybe feeling excited, thinking about how great this experience will be and talking about it with increasing enthusiasm around the water cooler.

Imagine this: You’ve ordered a new gadget. Awesome! And it’s going to arrive “within 14 business days.” Aaaagh! Every day when you come home and see it’s not here yet, what will you be feeling and thinking and doing? You might be feeling impatient or even annoyed when it hasn’t arrived, thinking about how silly it is to have to wait this long, and start your evening slightly bummed.

Research has shown that experiences contribute more to our happiness than things do. We tend to feel excited awaiting an experience and impatient waiting for an item. There’s an element of thrilling mystery when we imagine an experience because we don’t know what exactly awaits us – with things, we tend to know what we’ll end up with. We are less likely to compare our experiences with those of others but we easily and frequently compare our possessions. Also, experiences (and not possessions) are connected to other things that contribute to happiness, like social connection (you’re more likely to socialize on a vacation and not when you’re playing with your new Apple watch) and identity (what adds more to who you are – what you’ve done or what you have?). Experiences can help us connect even after they’re over since people tend to be more interested in hearing about our experience rather than our new item. And finally, we will never struggle with hedonic adaptation to experiences. It’s over and done before we get bored of it. Eventually that new gadget becomes a part of the background (or even obsolete) but that experience you had becomes a set of memories – good memories that stay good and bad memories that morph into good stories.