Accumulate experiences, not things

Recent scientific research on what makes us happy shows that experiences, however one-off or short-lived, are more effective at sustaining our happiness than buying a longer lasting thing. This seems counter-intuitive, but according to Dr Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University:

“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.”

So in the choice between buying a piece of bling or going to a concert, or taking a balloon flight – go for the experience rather than the thing. And the reason – according to Dr Gilovich – is in our propensity for adaptation. Quite simply, longer lasting objects are novel for a while, but then we get used to them and the return on happiness diminishes.

Rain in Paris

Rain in Paris

I suspect this comes back to our hunter-gatherer days. For human survival we needed to develop a keen sense of change versus continuity. By getting used to a scene, we could then screen it out in order to focus on movement or change in order to identify threats efficiently, without having to watch every blade of grass all the time. Boredom became a survival skill.

French busker

French busker

In music, if a single note is held, it is not long before we stop hearing it. But give it a vibrato or tremolo and we will keep enjoying it for far longer. It is not long before we stop hearing a ticking clock, yet if the speed of the tick is changed, or if it stops, we notice immediately that something has changed and we become more alert to it.

Tourist photographers

Tourist photographers

With tangible objects it is also easy to compare – perhaps unfavourably with the similar one your neighbour bought – how many carats is that diamond? or how many megapixels does your camera sensor have? So we become acutely aware that what we have is out of fashion or has been superseded by another model, and perhaps our happiness quotient diminishes with that.

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

But it is harder to compare experiences because they are inherently subjective – was my experience of the Eiffel Tower better or worse? How can you tell? But one thing is certain – your view, your experience, changed you in a way that money cannot buy. Whether good or bad, your experience gave you a new perspective on the world, and that perspective has helped shape who you are, and who you are becoming.

The Musée du Louvre

The Musée du Louvre

And the great thing about experiences is that when you review your photos, your journals, or smell that lavender on the breeze, you are instantly transported back to that time you shared a coffee with a friend at the Musée du Louvre, and each time you remember something new about that experience – perhaps because of other experiences since.

Things wear out, get lost or become less useful, but experiences continue to grow and enrich our lives and will never be taken from us, no matter how adverse our circumstances.

And so it is with travel. Scientifically proven to make you happier 🙂

Notre Dame - Paris

Notre Dame – Paris




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