In life, we all just want more happiness at the end of the day. However, we struggle to find it (or create it) in many cases. What does it take to become happier? Should we buy a bigger TV, house, or car to fulfill our needs? Or, should we spend our hard-earned money on a vacation instead?
Logically, the material possessions make more sense to buy. After all, we can go out and buy it today, and it should last us a while. With the vacation, we have to wait months to obtain it, and we don’t get to experience it for very long. After the trip, we will have some pictures and souvenirs to show for it, but other than that, our memories will have to do.
Most people would choose material possessions over the trip, because they see them as having a higher value than the vacation. After all, you get to experience it for a longer period of time, and you can obtain it relatively easily. However, science says that our assumptions about what will make us truly happy have been dead wrong.
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, told Fast Company. “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.”
Buying This ONE Thing Will Make You Happier Than Anything Else
While money can make us happy to a certain extent, it doesn’t have much effect on us after we have our basic needs met. However, how we choose to spend our disposable income can make a huge difference in our happiness levels.
After studying what makes people happy for over 20 years, Gilovich discovered that using our money to buy experiences, such as travel, concerts, movies, and classes, will make us happier than buying material items.
Sure, the new car or iPhone might bring us happiness temporarily, but that quickly wears off the longer we use the gadget.
For one of his many studies, Gilovich asked people to rate their happiness in regards to both material items and experiences. Initially, they rated them about the same. However, over time, they reported less satisfaction with material items, and MORE satisfaction with experiences.
Gilovich explains the reasoning behind this: we hold experiences closer to our hearts than material items.
“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.”
Even negative experiences can give us satisfaction over time, even more than material goods.
Gilovich found that people became happier after talking about negative experiences, even when the experience conversely affected their happiness. Why? Because even the most unsatisfactory of experiences can build one’s character or turn into a funny story or memory, he says.
Also, we feel more connected to people based on shared experiences rather than shared items. Why? Simply because experiences create less jealousy and separation, and bring us together more than possessions. We get more excited talking about a trip we took to Central America rather than our new TV, especially if others can relate.
“It certainly bothers us if we’re on a vacation and see people staying in a better hotel or flying first-class, but it doesn’t produce as much envy as when we’re outgunned on material goods,” Gilovich said.
Also, the act of waiting for a future event can bring us just as much happiness as looking back on a past one.
While both material items and experiences can result in anticipation, you already know pretty much what you’ll get with the possession. However, in regards to the experience, there’s much more mystery and excitement surrounding something totally new and unknown.
“You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive. Or when the two-day shipping on Amazon Prime doesn’t seem fast enough,” Amit Kumar, one of Gilovich’s colleagues, told The Atlantic.
Finally, the researchers found that just waiting in line for an experience provides much more happiness than awaiting a possession.
Why? Well, for starters, the excitement and possibilities surrounding an experience bring far more happiness than material goods, but also, experiences involve much less competition than possessions. Let’s look at what happens on any given Black Friday, for example.
“You sometimes hear stories about people rioting, smashing windows, pepper-spraying one another, or otherwise treating others badly when they have to wait,” Kumar said in a news release.
“Our work shows that this kind of behavior is much more likely in instances where people are waiting to acquire a possession than when they’re waiting for tickets to a performance or to taste the offerings at their city’s newest food truck.”
In addition to increasing happiness, the researchers have found that spending money on experiences makes people more social. The research Gilovich and his colleagues have done could affect not only personal spending, but also how state and federal governments spend their money.
“Our research is important to society because it suggests that overall well-being can be advanced by providing an infrastructure that affords experiences — such as parks, trails, beaches — as much as it does material consumption,” Gilovich said.
Another study performed by researchers in California had similar findings. One of the researchers in the study, San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Psychology Ryan Howell, reported this about interviewing study participants before and after making a purchase:
“Prior to the purchase, respondents said they believed a life experience would make them happier but a material item would be a better use of their money. After the purchase, however, respondents reported that life experiences not only made them happier but were also the better value.”
In this study, however, researchers found that experiential purchasing relates in part to one’s sensitivity to rewards, emotional connection to events, and perception and appreciation of the world’s beauty. While experiences may affect each person differently, at the end of the day, most people will feel happier by purchasing something to do rather than something to collect and store on a shelf.
At the end of our lives, we won’t look back on how many cars or homes we purchased, how much money we had left in our bank, or what size TV we had. We will think back on the people who touched our hearts, who we got to share invaluable experiences with that changed us forever, and the beautiful places on this Earth we got to explore with them.
It might seem tempting to compare yourself to others who seem to have more material items than you, and feel jealous of them, but remember that you don’t own the stuff; it ends up owning you. Any big ticket item you buy means lots of debt you’ll have to pay back, which equates to added stress and strained finances. Of course, an experience can cost a lot if you choose, but at least you will have made memories and possibly new friends in the process.
In short, material objects build our egos, but experiences build our character. Which one sounds more important and more likely to make you happy?
The next time you get paid, consciously think about where you’d like your money to go before you blow it all on a big ticket item that will just sit in your house and lose value. An experience will sit in your heart for years to come, making you feel more connected to yourself and others, and most of all, happy. We all deserve happiness, and now that we can prove where it comes from, hopefully more people will rush out to buy a skydiving session or excursions in foreign countries rather than a mansion or the latest iPhone.
Remember, you don’t get to go back in time and redo the choices you made, so commit to living in the present and doing things that truly make you happy.