No really, it does. Now, we all know that money doesn’t always buy happiness. We understand this intuitively since everyone knows people who are just scraping by who are generally happy and people who are rich who are miserable. Science seems to back this up as well. Studies of lottery winners show that they are usually less happy after their win than before. Other studies have shown that once a person has enough money to meet his or her basic physical needs there is very little difference in happiness between people from different income levels. And the richest countries in the world usually aren’t the happiest ones.
Well, now the scientists have found another exception to the rule. It appears that while buying more material possessions doesn’t make a person any happier, spending money on experiences does. While the happiness of acquiring something shiny and new is real, we quickly adapt to new things and soon start taking it for granted. What was once so special and novel soon becomes just part of the background of our daily lives. And for the next thing to bring the same level of happiness it needs to be even shinier than the last one.
Experiences are different. When we go to new places, connect with others and learn new things we change ourselves from the inside instead of just changing the external trappings of our lives. I just love the way this author puts it:
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” said Gilovich in the study “A Wonderful Life: Experiential Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
“You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are a part of you. We’re the sum total of our experiences.”
I really do believe that there’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with things that make you happy. I really like a lot of my stuff and would be genuinely sad if I lost it. And I do believe that the happiness that someone feels about their granite counters or new winter boots is genuine, and every bit as real as the happiness I feel when I’m exploring a new place. But I guess the key question is whether it will still have the power to make you happy ten, twenty or even fifty years from now.
If you suddenly found your whole wardrobe from 20 years ago hidden in the attic, would those old items still make you happy? Sure, there would be a few things with special memories attached and you might even hold on to one or two things, but you would most likely shudder in horror at your former fashion sense and waste no time in getting rid of it. All those things that brought you happiness once are worth nothing in the happiness department twenty years on.
But what about if you’re catching up with a long time friend and they bring up that crazy night twenty years ago when you all piled into a car together to go off on some crazy adventure. Or you remember your first solo trip and all the amazing people you met from around the world while learning to navigate the world on your own. Or that time you volunteered with the church summer camp and had a great time while also learning that a career working with children was probably not the right path for you.
Obviously, travel is not the only worthwhile way to spend your money but the fact remains that experiencing new things is one of the best ways to bring real, lasting happiness to your life. It doesn’t have to be expensive or exotic for it to be meaningful. It could mean going around the world or just going around the block. But it does involve going. Because Grandma was right; the best things in life aren’t things.