Experiences make us happier than material possessions, science says

It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting more and more things, believing that they will somehow bring us happiness. Surrounded by the latest technology, we think that Apple Watch we’ve had our eye on, the latest iPhone or a brand new car will satisfy our needs.

But science has revealed that experiences rather than any number of shiny products will lead to a true sense of fulfilment. Deep down, we’re evidently all secretly yearning for a bit of adventure in our lives. So while the developed world may seem to have an insatiable desire for material objects, ultimately that just leads to a sense of dissatisfaction and misplaced priorities.

A study in 2014 by Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornwell University, found that ‘experiential adventures’ such as travelling, going to a concert or viewing an art exhibition, have a much more powerful effect on our lives than accumulating possessions. He believes experiences boost our happiness because they:

  • enhance and strengthen the social bonds between people
  • contribute to a sense of self-identity more than material objects
  • are evaluated differently to and create fewer direct comparisons than the purchase of ‘things’

We all know that good friendships are one of the most important parts of a happy life. Sharing experiences with a friend will strengthen bonds in a way that sharing possessions can never do. That’s because you are often forging memories that will last a lifetime. Think of the last time you met up with an old friend – how many times did the phrase, ‘remember when we…’ crop up?Gilovich describes this as the ‘story value’ of experiences as we love to talk about what we’ve done and seen. Simply sharing in an activity can promote closeness and mutual understanding.

Experiences, no matter how short lived they are, become part of our identity and consequently have longer lasting appeal. By contrast, anything you own remains separate to you. Owning the latest iPhone won’t change you as a person, whereas walking the Inca Trail may well do and you will certainly gather some amazing memories to cherish.

The research also explored the concept of ‘adaption’, which explains why the pleasure associated with the purchase of things quickly fades:

  • we soon get used to new possessions, not viewing them as ’exciting‘ for very long
  • we keep raising our expectations, always looking for something better
  • we can’t help but want to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, constantly making comparisons with what our friends have

Often, the happiness we get from buying something doesn’t even last as long as the item itself. With experiences, we’re less likely to make direct comparisons with our peers because it’s not as easy to quantify their value as with products. Instead, you can just enjoy the experience for what it means to you.

So, next time you’re deciding whether to spend your hard-earned money on an object or a new experience, think carefully about which will make you happier — for a lifetime.