The more you think about it, the stranger the distinction between spending on experiences and buying things begins to seem
Nobody in history bought anything for any reason other than how it made them feel.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi for the Guardian
By:Oliver Burkeman/UK Guardian
You’ll be happier if you spend money on experiences rather than things!” This is the kind of insight you’d expect to see on Richard Branson’s Twitter feed, alongside a photo of the bearded irritant waterskiing in the Caribbean (in a zany manner). But it’s also one of the best-studied findings in happiness research: material goods quickly cease delivering pleasure, whereas we savor the memory of experiences for years.
Or so we thought. A big new Hungarian study has found no significant difference between the two kinds of spending. And in any case, the more you think about it, the stranger the distinction between experiences and things begins to seem. Certain purchases are hard to classify as one or the other: a paperback novel is clearly an object, but you buy it in order to go on a journey of the imagination – so which is it? Yet on closer inspection, this problem turns out to apply to everything.
Consider the standard examples of the materialist who buys a sports car, believing it’ll make him happy, versus the wise appreciator of experience, who spends (much less of) her money on a holiday with friends. Isn’t the car-buyer also really purchasing an experience – namely the thrill he imagines he’ll get whenever he sees, drives or talks about his new ride? Conversely, the vacationer is hardly spurning physical goods. Some she’s renting, like a hotel room or a plane seat, while others, like food and drink, she’s buying – but either way, her experience is dependent on objects. The overarching truth here, as Sam Harris explains in his book Waking Up, is that everything we do is ultimately a way to manipulate our conscious experience. Nobody in history bought anything for any reason other than how it made them feel – whether the experience they were seeking was that of not feeling painfully hungry, or of owning a Fabergé egg.
The reason this matters, in practical terms, is that it helps us see the car-buyer’s true problem: not that he’s prioritizing objects over experience, but that he’s pursuing the wrong kind of experience. He wants to receive a predictable, consistent daily dose of pleasure from owning a car. But that’s not how pleasure works: if the holidaymaker ends up happier, it’ll be because she got to enjoy anticipating the trip, experiencing it, then consigning it to memory, where it can be burnished until it’s perfect (or, if it went terribly, turned into an anecdote that’s even more fun). If our shallow materialist were to use his vehicle to pursue unpredictable, sociable and one-off experiences – like, say, a road trip with friends – he’d stand just as much chance of happiness.
As if to confirm all this, another recent study concludes that it’s psychologically far easier to declutter your home if you first take a photo of anything to which you’re emotionally attached. People are readier to part with such items when they know they can trigger the same old feelings by consulting the picture later. Which raises the question: what if they’d saved their cash and just collected a bunch of photos to begin with?