Read or spend any time sifting through the major TV and online business news outlets such as CNBC, Forbes, The Atlantic, Fast Company, or Fortune, and you’ll see that the prevailing wisdom today states that spending money on experiences will make you happier than spending money on stuff.

Experiences are more important to us than things, research shows

Stuff is fleeting in many cases. Sure we may keep our phones for two years, a car for five, and a dress for twenty, but the newness wears off eventually and most possessions simply become part of our everyday lives. We stop thinking about them after a while. You’d perhaps think, then, that a two-hour experience would pale greatly in comparison in terms of the effects it would have on our lives. However, according to writer, Travis Bradberry, “[e]xperiences become a part of our identity…We are not our possessions, but we are the accumulation of everything we’ve seen, the things we’ve done, and the places we’ve been. Buying an Apple Watch isn’t going to change who you are; taking a break from work to hike the Appalachian Trail from start to finish most certainly will.” 

Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University who has been studying the question of money and happiness for over two decades says something similar in an article from Fast Company by Jay Cassano. “It’s counterintuitive that something like a physical object that you can keep for a long time doesn’t keep you as happy as long as a once-and-done experience does,” he writes. “Ironically, the fact that a material thing is ever present works against it, making it easier to adapt to. It fades into the background and becomes part of the new normal. But while the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identity.”

Identity. That’s the key factor here. Experiences become part of our identity. After all, in a sense they happened to us and so, once complete, they are inextricably part of us forever more. If I look around my house, I can definitely look at possessions I love: my great-grandmother’s antique secretaire, the paintings my grandfather painted over the course of 40 years, the framed picture of my sister and me when we were little, a few knick knacks here and there. But yet again, it isn’t really the thing itself that I love but rather what – or who – it represents to me. It’s the experience of emotion or memory that I feel each time I look at or touch this possession. Everytime I look around my apartment, I re-experience the idea and the memories of my family and friends, or even perhaps an old lover or colleague who thought of me in a given moment and gifted me a little trinket. 

Kala Maxym sings Queen Nefertiti in Akhnaten

Here are some recent – and some not so recent (I’ll try to date them to show how short or long the effect has been on me so far) experiences that I know have had profound experiences on me:

  • Looking and letting my eyes fill with tears at a random Manet painting in the Impressionist Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (2 years ago)
  • Watching Patricia Racette sing the heartbreaking aria “Senza mamma” in a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera (10 years ago)
  • Singing the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in graduate school (oh boy am I dating myself but this was 14 years ago – that’s the picture above, by the way)
  • Watching the sunset from my rooftop that seemed as if the sky were on fire as a cool breeze caressed my arms, and I could hear rap music from down below (just this evening and also so regularly that I seek it out because I want to continue having this memory and am fortunate that I am able to do so)

Conversely, here are the things I remember buying recently that I still think I’ll remember in two weeks let alone two, 10, or 14 years from now)…. Ummmmm…..

Now you would be absolutely justified in thinking that there are most definitely things that help you have experiences. How, after all, could you hike the Appalachian Trail without the gear to do so safely? Perhaps your hiking boots are truly a possession you love. But again, is it really the possession itself or what it allows you to do and experience? I think you know the answer.

But let me go back a second. If I think back to those experiences I listed above that had such a profound effect on me as to be memorable almost in a tangible way, you’ll notice one thing: except for the last one, none of them was not full-sensory experience

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