Spend Money on Experiences, Not Toys

I’ll admit it. Those “Shot on iPhone 6” billboards actually got me a bit excited about all the potential the iPhone’s camera possesses. The pictures look fantastic, and it’s difficult to believe that a phone camera can produce such vivid shots.

Naturally, the promise of an amazing camera on my mobile phone was alluring enough for me to consider selling my newest smartphone (purchased just last year) and trading up. It is still, even as I write this.

But why do I have such contemplation about it? I mean after all, if I can sell my current phone for a relatively fair value then I can buy the new iPhone for a little cheaper. This alone should help me feel better about the purchase, right? Sure, overall I will have lost money—and keep losing money—on any continued upgrade purchase… but… my satisfaction level will continue to rise with every newer purchase. And that’s a good thing, yeah?


The funny thing, though, is that apparently this way of thinking is just a losing proposition—logically I already knew this—and that buying stuff is never quite a means to an end or a lifetime satisfaction guarantee.

Luckily for us perpetually bored beings something else is. And it is not something that we need to risk having stolen, becoming obsolete in 12 months (or less), or blowing up (which happened to the battery of my last smartphone).

Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University has been studying the question of money and happiness for over two decades. His conclusion? Rather than buying the latest smartphone or a newest sports car, Dr. Gilovich suggests that you will gain more happiness spending money on experiences such as going to art exhibits, doing outdoor activities, learning a new skill, or just traveling.

The enemy of happiness appears to be adaptation, and as anyone can attest, once you buy a product or item and get used to it the thrill disappears in a blink. Dr. Gilovich sees buying material items as a limited success, but as soon as we adapt to it then we are off again hunting to buy more packaged happiness. Conversely, buying an experience has lasting fulfilling memories whereas spending money on items does not.

Dr. Gilovich’s studies are the continued synthesis of the Easterlin paradox, whereas money does equal happiness but only to a certain point. In general, his studies examine the differences between material and experiential purchases. At the beginning, both purchases weighed similarly with regard to happiness, but as time increased the material purchases’ happiness “lightened” when compared to the happiness gained from experiences.

It is interesting also to note that the phone or remote control in your hand makes it all that more adaptable than last month’s casual hike up a local mountain range, or the first time you left the ground with a snowboard attached to your feet. The material purchase quickly fades into everyday background noise, while the experiential memory becomes sweeter as time continues on.

Most people probably find agreement with this. Not only do I have certain memories etched deeply that I can dig out for a quick happy fix at any time, but I also tend to try to relive or chase some of these same experiences again and again by going back to a familiar destination. Moreover, I continue going back, for example, to a place like a gym trying to recreate that certain feeling that I had when I lifted a certain amount of weight or landed that perfect kick or punch to an opponent during training. Once you have had such a memorable or great experience, the thrill to achieve and relive it again and again is forever strong and healthy.

The stimulation of buying and using a new gadget will last what… a couple weeks? And then you would have to continue purchasing to hopefully get that same feeling again. But that perfect trip to a beautiful beach where you spent the day drinking wine with your girlfriend and enjoyed not only a memorable day in the waves and sand but topped it off with a magnificent sunset is something you will never tire of thinking about. Never have I spent a minute of my day remembering the feeling I had when I bought something—no matter how big or expensive—but countless hours have been spent thinking about experiences in my life, both good and bad.

Oh, and those “bad experiences,” Dr. Gilovich says that even perceived negative experiences in your past seem to become brighter once you have had time to reflect and talk about them. He attributes this to the ability of a scary or stressful situation being reminisced into a funny or character-building experience.

Think of the first time you may have gone scuba diving. The mask may have been too tight or consistently fogged up, flippers too small, or you had too much weight around your waist so you were dragged by the current across the poor coral reef—no matter how uncomfortable you may have been at the time, it is humorous now. Or rather, a means to where you are today as a diver or adventure seeker.

Shared experiences also help to increase the long lasting wow factor—nothing like getting severally stung in the leg for the first time by a paintball with some buddies. And even if you didn’t share the experience directly with a friend, you are more likely to bond over similar experiences rather than bond over the fact you both are Microsoft users.

Dr. Gilovich’s studies should have a profound impact on not just the individual looking to achieve scientifically proven happiness but also the company owner looking to staff with like-minded and happy workers, and policy-makers wanting to achieve a more pleasant society.

Sounds peaches to me. If I was a company employee again, give me the month-long vacation rather than the few added hours just so I can buy some electronic toy that will be tossed in the bin in several years.

You can always borrow material items but you cannot borrow time or experiences. Unless, of course, you’re American news correspondent Brian Williams.

H/T: Fast Company