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Attitude Gratitude Mind-Body

Experiences Trump Stuff

Glitzy ads often make the not so subtle proposition that having more things brings happiness.  Of course, there are many things that can contribute to our comfort, security, sense of stability, and perhaps even our happiness. Unfortunately, after our basic needs are met, having more things seldom contributes very much too long term happiness. 

It’s not unusual to believe that buying something beyond our basic needs is a part of being happier.  Our rationale might be that the things of our desire will last longer than a one-time experience like a concert or vacation. According to research, that assumption is usually wrong.

We can misjudge the value of things over experiences if we fail to understand that an enemy of happiness is adaptation.  The problem is that when we buy things to make us happy we may succeed, but only for a little while. Soon enough the new thing that brought us gratification becomes an object of fading interest as we adapt to having it.

Psychologists that have studied this phenomenon of fading joy in ownership have a suggestion.  Rather than buy the latest thing, invest in experiences. You are likely to get more happiness from experiences like learning a new skill, going to art exhibits, participating in outdoor activities, or traveling.  You may also find many local experiences far less expensive than store bought stuff you likely already have too much of.  A sure sign of too much is a garage your car no longer fits in. Another worrisome symptom is closets without an inch to spare.

At first, it may seem counterintuitive that something you can keep for a long time doesn’t keep you as happy as long as a one-time experience. The problem is that the object is always with us and in time becomes the new normal as we adapt to it. In contrast, we grow from experiences. Each new experience adds to our previous experiences and in combination becomes an important part of our growing identity, our ability to appreciate life and how we react to the people around us.  Through new experiences we refresh our view of the world and add meaning to past experiences.

Sharing our experiences is part of the magic that gives life meaning.  This sharing is a vital part of the social connections that are integral to a healthy life. Even a negative experience that was once stressful can in time become a funny story to relate with friends and family.  Stories from our life experiences will usually outshine stories about our new wide screen TV. 

As a bonus, feeling happy helps you look good.  Best of all, no need to break the bank trying to look like a movie star.  The better investment would be a gym membership, a trip to the spa, dance lessons, or a course of study that teaches a skill or expands your appreciation of life (music, art, architecture, science, language, history, etc.) 

Your prescription for happiness this season is to take a break from buying things and start investing in experiences! Small expenditures involving social interactions like dinner out or an outing to one of Huntsville’s Christmas time events can be a great way to de-stress, have a great time and create lasting memories. With a community that offers so many possibilities, let this season be the one when new experiences begin.

Need an experience to share?  The web links below can lead you to the gift of local experiences that you, your friends and family can look back upon with fond memories.

My favorite outdoor Christmas time event is a walk along Horse Shoe Trail in Southeast Huntsville.  Perhaps you have a favorite local experience to share? I’d be delighted to hear about your favorite experience of the season. 

Nancy Neighbors, MD

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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