The 7 Reasons That Science Says You Should Pay For Experience, Not Things June 18, 2015 12:30

Planning a vacation this summer? You've chosen to spend your money in the way that's going to give you the most happiness.

Your big travel plans might seem like a waste of money. What will you come back with, besides some photos on your phone and a few memories. If you bought a TV with that money instead, you'd watch it every day. While that might seem more valuable, it's been determined way beyond reasonable doubt that experiences are more likely than material goods to lead to happiness. Since this new truth was first unearthed back in 2003 by psychologists Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven, pioneering researchers have been joining the dots of previous work and conducting new studies to work out why: why are experiences so much better than material goods at making us happy?

Here are seven key reasons they've identified:

1: We see the world through rose-tinted glasses

Experiences are better than material goods because of something psychologists call ‘positive re-interpretation," and what you or I would call "looking through rose-tinted glasses." If you buy a bad material good, like shoes that hurt or trousers that make you look fat, you're stuck with the fact you made a bad choice. Those shoes will always hurt. But with experiences it's not like that. You can make them seem better in your mind.

2: We get bored of stuff easily

Material possessions aren't as good at making us happy because of something called hedonic adaptation. This happens to anything new. At first, it's exciting—think of a new cell phone—but we adapt and get used to it, and it becomes less likely to bring us joy. "You could argue," says Tom Gilovich, "that adaptation is sort of an enemy of happiness." But hedonic adaptation, the research shows, affects objects far more than experiences. We adapt to them far quicker.

3: It's harder to compare experiences

Choosing between different cars or computers or handbags is not so far from comparing apples with apples. Weighing up experiences is far more subjective. Since it's harder to compare experiences, you're less likely to worry whether you're making the best choice or not, less likely to regret your choice afterwards, and less likely to think about the status implications of your choice. That means experiences are less likely to stress you out, and more conducive for happiness.

4: The life-changing magic of flow

Flow is a mental state, first identified by a psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that you get into when you are effortlessly engaged in whatever it is you are doing. This is what athletes mean when they say they're "in the zone." It is what spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle mean by "in the present." No matter what you call it, flow is essential for happiness.

5: To wait (for an experience) is great

Experiences are better than material goods because they somehow magically provide free anticipatory pleasure. 

6: Experiences make the man (and the woman)

Experiences are better than material goods because we are more likely to think of them as contributing to, and part of, who we are.

7. We're people people

Humans are social animals. We like hugs. We like to be listened to. And we like to feel as if we belong. We are, you could say, people people. This means experiences are more likely to make us happy than material goods, because they bring us closer to other people.