Happiness can often mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own perspective on how to be happy but what does science have to say about it?
I recently did some reading about Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University in New York. He has conducted four studies relating to the subject of happiness over decades, from these studies, he came to the scientific conclusion that happiness is derived from experiences, not things.
Experiences tend to bring people more happiness than possessions
A major recurring theme in Gilovich’s work is the importance of experience over owning material things. In one study he focused on the purchases people make, comparing how they felt spending money on material possessions versus experiential purchases. From this, he found that people were ultimately much happier as a result of experiences (aka travel, going somewhere or doing something).
“People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession,” says Gilovich. “They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they’ll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.”
In a talk about barriers to gratitude, Gilovich explained that a survey of his students at Cornell University found that the students enjoyed their conversations about their experiences over conversations about their material purchases. Which meant that happiness from experiential purchases can be more enduring than that from material purchases. A main rreason for this is that experiences make for better stories, cultivate personal identity more, and connect people to each other.
Why do material posessions not give us as much joy?
A quote that I loved from Gilovich explains that “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.”
Gilovich talked about how people often have more regrets over not participating in experiences than for buying possessions. An example is that you may regret more not going on a weekend away with your friends than not buying a new dress (I know I do!).
He found that we experience the same amount of happiness when we buy something we want and when we go travelling. There is an important difference between the two though. The amount of happiness we get from our purchase falls over time, whereas the memories of travelling continue to give us happiness hormones for longer. Pretty cool huh?
One major reason for why experiences matter more to us than material objects is that experiences are usually social. Think about the recent experience you have had, they are usually with people you love like your friends or family. Being with these people during you experiences like travel, makes them so much more valuable and memorable.
You’ll regret more the things that you didn’t do rather than the things you did
I particularly loved this quote from one of Gilovich’s talks: “Mind your peaks and ends. You won’t remember the length of your vacation experience, but you’ll remember the intensity. And do something special at the end.”
Is it time to get out and do something memorable?
Maybe it’s time to start spending your money on experiences over possessions. Plan a trip, try a new sport, go away for the weekend, go hiking… We are, according to Gilovich, “the sum total of all our experiences.”
A new dress or a new table will just become another posession that you own, whereas every new adventure and memory can become a source of joy that stays with you for the rest of your life.
One things I have taken away from this… it’s time for me to start planning my next getaway!
Postrel, Virginia (September 9, 2004). “In New Age economics, it’s more about the experience than about just owning stuff.”. New York Times. Economic Scene. cited in “In New Age economics, it’s more about the experience than about just owning stuff.”.