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.
To test this, psychologists found some people going on a cycling holiday in California and some others going to Disneyland. Of the cyclists, they found that even the ones who’d had a bad experience—a day of cycling in the rain—had a great time. When asked later, instead of thinking of that rainy day as unpleasant, even though it was at the time, they re-interpreted it as rewarding.
It was similar with the Disney visitors. Mitchell and his colleagues recorded their feelings before, during, and after the trip. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that it turns out the before and the after are more pleasurable.What we imagine we’ll be doing is similar to what we remember:1 the rides, meeting Mickey, quality time with family. But when we’re actually there, the reality is that we spend far more time coping with the crowds, waiting in line, and moody kids. With experiences, our memories bring the best bits to the front and give them a rosy glow—and the annoying, tiresome parts fade into the forgotten background.
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.
In one study to test this theory, researchers ran a lab experiment with 355 participants. Each had to choose between either an experience—playing a game, watching a video, or listening to a song—or a material good—a deck of cards, for instance, or a ruler, or a keychain, or a picture frame. The researchers then tracked the happiness that people associated with these choices after a few minutes, a day, two days, a week, and, finally, two weeks.
Now you’re asking: who gets happiness from a ruler? But think back to school days a minute, and the fun you could have flicking stuff, hitting people and, er, drawing straight lines. Also bear in mind there were other options, and the outcome of the research was clear: the happiness from ruler, the cards, the keychain, and picture frame fell far more steadily than happiness for the game, the video, and the song.