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The Science of Why You’re Happier Buying Experiences, Not Things

Happy young couple lying at the grass and taking selfies

by Raquel Cool

The next time you’re itching to book a one-way plane ticket to Reykjavik, put your guilt to rest. Your hard-earned dollars are better spent on experiences, rather than things, according to a Cornell University psychological study.

You know the emotional boost you get from buying a bright and shiny new thing? Well, it wears off quickly, according to the researchers. Your Jonathan Adler-themed living room will give you a shot of joy — “Oh my god, I don’t want you to panic, but I’m officially a tastemaker now” — but psychologically speaking, these objects fade into the background as part of your new normal. And you might find yourself back to square one.

“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University professor who investigated the psychological ramifications of material versus experiential purchases, told Fast Company. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”

The science behind why you’re better off investing in experiences comes down to several factors:

When it comes to social bonding, shared experiences are more relatable than shared goods.

There’s a social mechanism at play here. Basically put: you’re more likely to feel kinship towards someone who has also braved nitrogen narcosis in the Shark & Yolanda Reef in the Egyptian Red Sea than, say, someone who has also owns the exact same iPhone and flatscreen that you do. I’ll admit, I do feel a slightly special bond with people who share my die-hard devotion for Vitamix blenders, but I’m far more stoked to meet someone who has also biked 30 miles through Bolivia’s Death Road or has solo trekked through Peru.

(2) Your experiences are more likely than objects to become ingrained in your identity.

Objects may come and go, but the happiness lifespan of objects is shorter-lived. Experiences are more likely to imbue themselves into your very being. They shape who you are.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” Gilovich said. “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 part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

(3) Experiences, rather than objects, elicit fewer unsavory social comparisons.

“The tendency of keeping up with the Joneses tends to be more pronounced for material goods than for experiential purchases,” said Gilovich, whose study found that experiential purchases draw fewer social comparisons than material ones. “It certainly bothers us if we’re on a vacation and see people staying in a better hotel or flying first class. But it doesn’t produce as much envy as when we’re outgunned on material goods.”

Another note: Banking your happiness trajectory on travel is a smart choice, particularly when we are all faced with tough environmental choices. Choosing experiences over objects isn’t just good for you, but it can also be good for the environment. We’re in a trash crisis, according to some experts, and it’s not getting any better. 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Bank states that United States generates 624,700 metric tons of waste every day. The Story of Stuff, a San Francisco-based environmental activism group, has a tagline on their website: “Today I choose less stuff, and more joy.” Now science further justifies the choice.

Raquel Cool is a writer and artist in the Bay Area, California. She is represented by Writers House. She is the founder of Cool Design Studio, where she creates fresh, modern websites for happy businesses.

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