Scientists agree spending on life experiences beats shopping to centre us and change our lives for the better
Material pleasures have their place, but for lasting satisfaction and enjoyment, nothing can beat adventurous activities like surfing or hiking, or travelling to the most beautiful parts of the globe and learning something new
Buying new clothes or gadgets may put a smile on your face, but the joy you get from owning them is superficial and fleeting. For true, deep and long-lasting contentment, experts recommend experiential purchases instead.
When Amira Morgan spends her hard-earned money, she is more likely to do so on experiences than on material goods. The thirty-something says that while material things have a place in her life, they don’t make her happy. Instead, she gets tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment from other things that challenge her, shift her perspective and expose her to new ideas, like travel.
“Experiences help form your identity,” says Morgan, who works in marketing and communications. “Experiencing new places and cultures, for instance, is what helps you evolve as a person and influences who and what you become. No material thing can do that.”
In addition to travel, Morgan also spends her money on wellness experiences and education, such as language courses. This is her way of investing in her own personal growth and long-term emotional well-being. Such experiences give her a positive buzz that she describes as “addictive”.
The science seems to back her up. A 2009 San Francisco State University study revealed that people who spent money on experiences rather than on “stuff”, felt happier and believed that their money was better spent.
Another study, carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published in 2015 in Social Psychology and Personality Science found that, while the study participants derived more frequent momentary happiness from material goods, the momentary happiness they derived from experiences was more intense.
Even waiting for experiences is thought to make us happy. A 2014 study by Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich revealed that consumers felt happier just thinking about experiential purchases, compared to not thinking about any purchases at all, whereas a material goods purchase did not improve their mood.
Hong Kong-based company Chosen Experiences, founded in 2013, offers travel and learning packages that help its clients develop self-awareness and boost their physical and mental performance. Its typical customers are busy urban professionals who want more from life than just amassing material possessions.
The company’s programmes include exploring the remote Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland with its snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers; trying adventurous activities like surfing and canyoning in Bali; and connecting with nature among the Franschhoek Mountains outside Cape Town.
Company co-founder John Stanton says the experiences aim to help participants achieve peak physical and mental well-being through challenging and stimulating adventures to boost learning ability and create “personal evolution”.
We live in a hyper-materialistic world, but most of us want something more; something that centres us and transforms our lives for the better.
Stanton and his co-founder Robin Connelley agree. “Globally, mental and physical health costs are skyrocketing as a result of the demanding urban professional lifestyle. In response, more people are prioritising investment in their mental and physical health, rather than in material possessions. And increasingly, people are using wellness travel as an opportunity for learning and self-exploration, and to facilitate that investment in themselves,” says Stanton.
Dr Timothy Sharp, chief happiness officer at the Happiness Institute in Sydney, Australia, suggests several reasons experiences generate more happiness than material possessions. For one, the joy and memories we get from experiences and encounters tend to last a lifetime, whereas the thrill we get from acquiring possessions is only fleeting.
“We adapt very quickly to our possessions so they soon lose their appeal, but the experiences we have stay with us for longer. In fact, they increase in influence over time by way of positive memories,” he says.
“Our experiences shape how we see ourselves and influence our views on life. Travel, for example, can contribute to self-beliefs such as ‘adventurous’, ‘courageous’, ‘exciting’ and ‘competent’. And finally, we’re more likely to share experiences with friends and significant others, and there’s no doubt that positive relationships and connectedness add to our happiness and well-being.”
Besides travel, Sharp recommends attending live music performances or sporting events, hiking, camping, enrolling in a course that interests you, or visiting a new restaurant in a part of town you don’t usually go to – examples of experiences that can contribute to your happiness and make your life feel richer.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with going on shopping sprees or enjoying nice things. But Sharp says it’s important to understand that, more often than not, the pleasure we derive from having these material possessions is superficial. After a while, we get used to the feeling of having those things and start to desire something new and better.
Morgan still goes shopping, but she is swapping stilettoes for hiking boots and high-fashion threads for activewear – “stuff” she needs for the various experiences she enjoys, like cliff jumping and volcano hiking in exotic locales like Guatemala.
“Such experiences take me out of my comfort zone and help me develop a level of bravery that extends to my normal life,” she says.
“Now, I see where I can apply this courage every day. When making decisions, for instance, I’ve found that I’m more willing to take risks – and relish them.”