More Experiences and Fewer Possessions: One of the Secrets to Happiness

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Which do you remember in more detail, your most recent vacations or the day you bought your LCD TV or cell phone? What memory gives you the most joy?

Aristotle remarked centuries ago that “wealth as a whole consists in using things rather than in owning them,” and he actually was not that far off, even though the rampant consumerism that surrounds us often leads us to believe otherwise by overvaluing our possessions and undervaluing our experiences.


To Have vs. To Do

Psychologists at the University of Colorado devised a very interesting experiment to evaluate the amount of happiness that can be produced by the purchase of experiences or material things. Seventy people were recruited and divided into two groups. All of them had to write about the most recent purchase that had made them happy, but some were asked to share a personal experience while others had to talk about a material possession.

A week later, these people went back to the laboratory and read what they had written. Then they were asked to evaluate it, how happy and satisfied they felt with respect to their purchase, as well as how frequently they had recalled that purchase during the preceding days. The results of the experiment indicated that:

  • Recalling experiences resulted in more happiness and more perceived value (considered a better investment) than did recalling the material things that were purchased.
  • Those who had experiences not only had more positive memories than those who bought material things did but also thought about them more frequently.

So the findings revealed that the experiences produced more positive feelings and greater satisfaction. But why? Why do we get so excited when we think about the car, computer, or iPhone we’re going to buy only to find out afterwards that it loses its appeal? There are at least 4 reasons:


Reason #1: Buying material things stresses us out more.

A series of experiments conducted by psychologists at Cornell University discovered that buying material things is much more complicated than buying experiences; that is, it takes more work to decide what type of TV or phone we want to buy than it does to choose a vacation destination or a restaurant to go to for dinner.

Because it is decidedly easier to compare material things than experiences, we do many more comparisons per hour when deciding on a material thing to purchase than when choosing an experience. And we make comparisons both before and after a purchase.

Prior to a purchase, we worry more about making sure that we’re not going to regret our choice in the case of material things. But it seems that the martyrdom does not end with the decision, because after the purchase of a material thing, we proceed to continually mull over the decision we made and tend to feel less satisfied with the purchase because we keep on comparing it over and over again with the other options we had at our disposal. In short, buying material things is not only much more stressful but also less satisfactory.


Reason #2: Experiences improve over time, but material things do not.

Each experience is unique and leaves a profound impression on our emotional memory. From this perspective, we can say that it works in our favor that, unlike with material possessions, we find it very difficult to make comparisons among our experiences. If we add to this that normally with the passage of time we tend to reinterpret our memories of the pleasant experiences we have had more positively, we can then see why putting our money into experiences almost always turns out to be a wise investment.

With material things, the opposite tends to happen: Material things go out of style, we get used to them, and we see new models come out, so they cease being as attractive as when we bought them.

In other words, our memories of the pleasant experiences we have had usually improve over time, while the enjoyment of the things that we have purchased tends to decrease.


Reason #3: Experiences form a part of our identity.

Experiences, more so than what we own, also make us happier because we consider them a more valuable and fundamental part of our identity. What we experience makes us what we are—what you possess, not so much. A person’s life is the sum of his or her experiences. The accumulation of rewarding experiences makes us consider our life more rewarding as well. So, in general, people consider our experiences more self-defining than the material things we buy. This is another reason why a good experience feels more fulfilling than a good purchase, at least in the long run.


Reason #4: Experiences connect us with others.

Last but not least, experiences almost always involve other people, and we know that time spent with the people we love often makes for very rewarding experiences. In general, having satisfying social interactions increases our wellbeing, and experiences, in turn, make us increase our interaction with other people, either because we share experiences directly with others or because we love to tell our friends, family members, or coworkers about them later.

In conclusion, the next time you find yourself with some money in your pocket, you’re better off not giving it a second thought: it’s best to spend it on experiences. They will make you happier.



Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 146-159.

Van Boven, l., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202.






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