For decades, researchers thought anyone could find happiness as long as they could buy whatever their heart desired. Being able to buy the big house, the shiny car, or the next great tech gadget meant you were able to buy happiness. A 20-year study by a Cornell University professor is shattering this idea and shows the importance of investing in experiences over things.
Adaptation isn't happiness
Dr. Thomas Gilovich conclusion was simple: spend money on experiences, not things. The professor saw the old idea that objects brought happiness as broken.
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. 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,” says Cornell Professor Dr. Gilovich.
In other words, having the new iPhone may put a smile on your face, or a massive shopping spree may make you excited, but the novelty will quickly fade; all those possessions won’t be exciting, they will just be normal. Gilovich also found new purchases only lead to new expectations and not true happiness. The moment something new became ordinary, people were already moving on.
Experiences never fade to the mundane, but objects always do. Enduring happiness comes from breaking out of our everyday routine, trying something new, and traveling around the world.
We’re a sum of our experiences
Experiences are fleeting, but that’s not a bad thing. No matter how hard we try, we can’t capture every second of life’s most important moments. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean the happiness and impact of those moments fades with time passing.
In fact, those experiences become part of you. Your identity is not defined by your possessions, but is actually an accumulation of the places you’ve been, lessons you’ve learned, and the experiences you’ve had. Buying something new won’t be a life-changing event, but traveling and living in a foreign country will be.
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. 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.”
The professor also found people don’t regret not buying something, but do regret missing an experience. Possessions can always be bought later on, but experiences can never be duplicated. When you miss out on traveling or a special event, you miss out on all the stories that come with it. Minimize regret and expand your horizons by investing in experience.
Invest in purpose and passions not possessions
Possessions should never be your guiding principle in life. You will never feel fulfilled chasing after the next great “must have” item and never find the real happiness experiences can bring. What should guide you through life are your passions and your unique purpose.
Even if you can’t answer the question ‘what should I do with my life’ or know what your dream career looks like, you probably still have an idea about what you’re passionate about. You should find any and every experience which let you explore those passions.
Invest in your passions and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you. These are the experiences that will help you find your purpose and shape your life.
The anticipation of uncertainty
Choosing an experience comes with a degree of uncertainty. For that reason alone, many of us decide to avoid unfamiliar experiences. The worry usually is not very valid, and science finds the risk is almost always worth it. Gilovich even found people spoke positively about the risk they took even if it didn’t go as planned.
Gilovich also looked at the anticipation between getting an experience and obtaining a possession. He found waiting for possession only causes impatience and stress, whereas the anticipation for an experience caused excitement and enjoyment.
“In reality, we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.”
Memories and stories only get better over time. You’ll cherish experiences from the moment you start planning them to the second it’s over.
Possessions don’t connect us
“We consume experiences directly with other people and after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.”
Experiences are social, which makes them worth so much more than any object. Most of the time experiences happen with family, friends, and fellow interns which makes them so much more valuable. Even after the experience is over and the moment passes you’re still left with a story to tell.
"Turns out people don't like hearing about other people's possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend," said Cornell doctoral candidate Amit Kumar.
You’ve probably never connected with anyone by showing them the things you own because possessions don’t reveal who you are, and cease to cause genuine connections. Experiences reflect more on who you are then any object ever could. Sharing our experiences and stories allows us to bond with others in a deep and meaningful way.
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