be skeptical of psychologists
I agree. It's not clear to me how you could reasonably answer a question like, "Which makes you happier, things or experiences?"
Buying my toothbrush didn't make me particularly happy. But if it fell in the toilet, should I say, "Too bad I can't buy a new one, because to maximize my happiness I should really put that $1.50 toward buying Coldplay tickets"?
In fact, I bet people overestimate their momentary happiness more when predicting for experiences than for possessions. There's research on how people expect fun experiences (like a European vacation) to be great, they remember them being great, but when they're actually experiencing them, they're less great: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103197913330
That's because when you imagine going to Rome, you picture yourself sucking down Negronis and strolling through the Coliseum. You don't picture yourself waiting in line, or getting dehydrated, or tossing and turning while sirens wail outside your AirBnB. All those things fade in memory, both because negative things fade faster than positive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fading_affect_bias), and because you had a strong theory in the first place that "European vacation = fun", and things that don't fit with that theory tend to get lost.
I bet this happens less with possessions. I buy a TV in the hopes of watching entertaining images on it, and that's exactly what I end up doing. I never expect buying a new thing to make me transcendently happy, but I do expect experiences to do that for me sometimes, and I'm often disappointed.
I used to chase experiences and look down on the normies who only buy stuff, until I had a baby and realized our home environment is literally her entire life and a baseline of normal. In the past I didn't care about cooking at home or having nice plates as long as I could go to restaurants. Now buying fine things allows me to *create* experiences instead of merely consuming them. Only buying experiences without ever creating any is still consumerism.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the fact that almost everyone says exactly “I prefer buying experiences over things” which to me hints that it’s rooted in marketing somewhere. It’s the “diamonds are a girls best friends” for millennials. I imagine Delta, United, Spirit etc all came together and thought, how do we get more people to spend money on travel? Actually this whole thought was inspired by a Delta commercial.
All to say, I enjoyed this reflection and I think there’s something to your argument here!
“It also supports the notion, which occasionally floats around, that wealthy people aren’t really made happy by their fancy possessions, which is comforting if you like to believe that wealthy people are idiots.”
I am new to your newsletter, but for sure a fan, and one of my favorite aspects is the way you identify and poke fun at our more sophisticated strategies for flattering ourselves.
This articulated a lot of what I've been feeling lately. Like you said, the divide between experience and possession makes sense at the extremes but it blurs really quickly. Even buying a better television could create better movie watching experiences and buying a new video game system could unlock a whole bunch of game experiences you couldn't have otherwise.
With those two examples too, I tend to think more about who's a critical vs. passive consumer. I'm a critical reader but a pretty passive television watcher, for example, so I have more of an ✨experience✨ depending on the medium and what I bring to it. Similarly, I only lightly enjoy interior decorating so when I buy along those lines, it is mostly just stuff but I have friends who deeply enjoy having objects they love around them so even that seemingly consumption/stuff based thing is pretty experiential for them.
There’s another category here: investing in learning. I’ve spent thousands of dollars (and hours) learning a language, and every hour spent brings me immense joy. And the skill I’ve built is *truly mine* in a way a pair of shoes or trip to Bali never could be -- I’ve rewired my brain, bit by bit, and given myself a key to a new world as a result
I have become more and more agoraphobic with age, so planning trips and outings and things cause me intense anxiety. On top of that, my spouse believes that the only thing that can bring happiness is experiences - preferably in the form of holiday trips and weekend hikes. These outings are planned over weeks and months and all energy and focus is spent on the anticipation and execution thereof. Inevitably, after said experience has been experienced, there is a backlash of grumpiness as spouse comes back to earth, recriminations if it hasn't gone optimally, and then the inevitable casting outwards for the next fix. It's a trap, and I hate it. It in turn feeds my own reluctance to subject myself to these trips in future. Conversely, my "experiential fixes" arise fundamentally out of relatively "fixed" objects. I prefer to bring the experience to myself through the creation and making of things. Be that crafts, or painting, or playing music, or writing, or growing plants and food. And, of course, there's all the dreaming that goes with it. It is essentially about a transformative journey, where I get to take something and make it into something else. Ultimately, the product is a "thing", but the process of rendering it and moulding it is an "experience", I guess? So I suppose I'm trying to have the best of both worlds. Have my cake and bake it, and all that.
I didn’t realise I enjoyed creating experiences through possessions until I moved in with my husband and got a fully stocked kitchen – I discovered the joy of cooking tasty meals efficiently, the simpler cleaning up process this enabled, and cooking together with my husband when hosting for friends and family. I agree with your #2 recommendation though – overtime the novelty of both types of experiences fades the “highs” you get from them, like everything else in life I suppose. Perhaps the key is to keep trying infusing a little something every now and then – like trying out new recipes.
The best money I ever spend is on books, and its mainly reading, but also having and showing.
I doubt I'm alone on this-
Only relationships will make you happy or unhappy. The rest is junk.
I always disliked the idea of experiences over things because experiences are temporary and fade away from memory over time – especially since I know my memory is not that good, and I am not really keen to create false memories; while things, you can keep, assuming they are well-made – which is also a big reason I have such a strong preference for super well-made BIFL things: I want my things to be *things* I can *keep*, not transient experiences that die after a year. Experiences, to me, are often essentially whatever I happen to record, and I don't even look at my recordings that often at all, while my things, I use all the time.
This is probably exacerbated by that, most of the experiences – trips and such – that I went on as a kid and teenager I didn't really enjoy *that* much, and I think for the most part weren't really so much things *I* enjoy, but things you are supposedly *supposed to* enjoy. And almost all the early ones I hardly remember at all and have few recordings of! At this point, I'm tired of all those on-rails "experiences", that amount to going to some singular destination and being super stressed about going to all the places in it before the time runs out, that don't even show anything that is much more interesting than I could have just looked up online! – exacerbated even further by, that if something is on-rails, someone has probably already recorded most of it. And again, they are mostly one-time experiences only, unlike buying things that one can experience over and over, time and time again, making it an even worse value.
I do have some experiences that I remember super fondly, but those were the ones enabled by things like my computer, VR headset, and much more recently, a family car I can now use exclusively, not a purchase of a ticket to something like a plane or theme park. Most things with a ticket, are overall in my experience super stressful and not worth it at all.
I think you make a good point about the ongoing background happiness/lack of suffering from a good pair of shoes, or similar items. What contributes to an individual's happiness is often quite hard to pin down, once you have the basic needs met.
I've been rather miserly most of my life ("thrifty" if you want to put a positive spin on it). I might walk despite discomfort because it will save me £2 on the bus, go to bed hungry instead of order a takeaway (cooking for myself is a whole other issue...), or still wear underwear that is now 18 years old and has holes in it (albeit not holes that disrupt the function of underwear). The main upside of this is that I have more in savings than most people, and thus feel more secure that I won't suffer as much if something disruptive happens in my life, e.g. if I lose my job or have to move house etc. In the past there has also been the smug superiority I secretly feel, but this has been diluted a lot as I've realised this is no way to live, and I think was me just trying to wring any "positive" feelings out of that way of living.
I've begun to wean myself off this, and the purchases that I now make make my life run so much more smoothly. The experiences I've exchanged money for have also made an impact, but most of the happiness wrought from going to a festival or a writing retreat etc has been about connecting with people, not the other elements of the experience. I'm not sure they have been vastly different from having friends over and chatting - which is also an experience, but usually not the type that is being referred to in this conversations.
All of this might be a bit of a tangent as I suppose the "materials vs experiences" conversation tends to be framed as Gucci shoes vs backpacking round India.
I agree with a lot of the comments here, in that I agree with your premise. The first purchase that comes to mind is when I bought a Lexus because it reminded me of how it felt to fly in first class. And since I was returning to life with a commute, I spent a lot of time in traffic enjoying my purchase. I had years of wonderful experiences in that car. And I kept it till it fell apart.
Unrelatedly, I want to comment on the nature of survey PR. Like so many of its kind, the statistical significance of this one is limited and flawed, and yet it has shaped a whole life philosophy for how many of us? It reminds me of the marshmallow study that condemns little ones who can't help eating a marshmallow when the proctor walks out of the room to life as underachieving wastrels.
Thank you for digging into the source material and writing about it so thoughtfully. I'm a new subscriber and excited to read more from you.
Objects raise baseline, experiences raise peaks?
Another criticism of the "buy experiences, not things" meme: https://write.as/harold-lee/theres-a-phrase-going-around-that-you-should-buy-experiences-not-things
This poast brought to mind my dad. He grew up fairly poor and ended up working his ass off as a real estate agent and later VP at a real estate firm, mostly to provide for us, but also to buy nice things (e.g. suits, nice cars, car washes to keep said cars looking nice, the latest iPhone upgrade, etc.). A couple of weeks or so before he passed away, he bought a bunch of replacement Apple Watch bands in various colors to match different outfits/moods. I think all those purchases really brought him joy. But man, he left us a lot of shit to sift through.