Want to be happier? It’s simple: buy less material things and spend more money on experiences, like travel. This route to contentment is backed up by science: over the past decade psychologists have done extensive research and studies into why experiences make us happier than things.
Most of us have finite amounts of wealth and we have to make decisions every day how to allocate it. It seems to make sense to buy things that will last at least for a few years: cars, couches, coffee machines, rather than spending money on experiences, which are short-lived, because the material things will bring with them longer-lasting happiness than the fleeting experiences, which are over in a few hours, days or weeks.
From a happiness perspective, this assumption, one which many of us make, is actually wrong. There are a couple of reasons why. Firstly, we’re subject to something known as hedonic adaption, which means we quickly get used to anything new. At first a new purchase, like a new pair of jeans, fulfills a desire, so you feel good. After a short time though, you stop appreciating the jeans, and as they become part of the background you lose the happiness you felt when you first bought them. Hedonic adaption happens much more with objects than it does with experiences, because of the transient nature of experiences like travel: you’re usually not on a trip long enough to adapt to the point where you don’t appreciate it any more. Even when a trip is long over, the pleasure derived from the experience stays with you: think about how long the happiness attached to the memory of a weekend away in the countryside with a group of friends or a camping holiday with your family in the bush lasts.
The second reason why experiences make us happier than things has to do with anticipation. Waiting for the new iPhone to become available in South Africa is annoying, while looking forward to the start of your holiday – even if it’s six months away – is butterflies-in-your-tummy exciting. Planning for and anticipating the start of a trip is part of the fun of travelling – who hasn’t got through long weeks of work without the fantasy of imagining yourself far away from the humdrum of the 9-5 life, relaxing on a beach, hiking through the mountains or exploring the streets of a new city? (This, by the way, is also an argument for booking holidays way in advance rather than doing everything last minute).
It might seem like you can create an identity connected to the stuff you own – that your house or your artworks can help to define you – but material goods are not a part of you, they’re just inanimate objects we to which we attach meaning. Experiences, on the other hand, are you. Experiences make us who we are: our self is little more than a collection of the things we’ve done, seen and learned. Every time you travel somewhere you build up your experience bank, which forms your part of both your ever-changing self and changes your outlook on the world. It’s hard to say the same thing about the latest Apple gadget.
This column was first published in the August 2015 issue of Mango Juice