In this modern world of material goods, online shopping, Black Friday riots and competition to create faster, better and shinier gadgets, there is more and more pressure on consumers to buy items and to buy them now. We are lead to believe we are getting what we need and therefore what we really want. We are lead to believe that all these brand new items and pretty pieces of decor in our houses are making us happier when this “happiness” is actually rather transparent and shallow. It is not things that will make us happy in life; they may have a fleeting impression and give our lives a nice glossy sheen but their impact on our true well-being and our souls is short lived. Instead, we really need to be buying experiences – declining on those new gadgets for the chance to travel. Where you go is up to you. You can go to some exotic land for a fortnight to have the holiday of a lifetime and experience a new culture or you can have a weekend in the city to enjoy some art or music, the point is that you make an event of it – you plan the trip, get excited by what is in store, make the most of all the little details surrounding the trip, exhibition or concert and enjoy reliving it for a long time afterwards.
Why are we encouraged by impulse buys when they are the antithesis of what will make us happiest?
Quite often we are encouraged to make impulse buys because we are told that these little spur of the moment purchases will make us happier but studies now show that this is not the case. In fact, the principle of impulse buying of material goods goes completely against the against the idea of purchasing for greater well being because these fleeting, spontaneous joys are nothing compared to the lasting feeling and deeper emotions associated with planning and taking part in an experience.
Purchasing an experience is greatly different to purchasing a material good that you happen to see and like the look of because of the length of the experience and its complexity. With impulse buys you are completely in the moment and that moment, while immediately exhilarating, does not give you much of a lasting high. Experiences, on the other hand, have three very important sections to them; there is the experience itself – the holiday, concert, exhibition or whatever else you may chose to do – but then there is everything that happens before and afterwards.
Many believe that the happiness generated from buying an experience over an item is so fulfilling because it starts so early with the anticipation stage. In a study by Harvard psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, the importance of this anticipation of an event is underlined and it seems that waiting for an experience really can increase our happiness, a notion that is also supported by research from Cornell. He states that “nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries” and advances the interesting theory that our minds will wander into areas of darkness and negativity if we do not have these positive and happy actions to look forward to. What this means is that when the short-term highs of a material purchase are over, we can find ourselves reflecting and looking backwards in a negative way. Some of us have buyers’ remorse from an impulse buy, others get nostalgic about what once was, but either way, we are looking in the wrong direction for our happiness. With experiences we get the chance to overcome this negative, wandering mind by looking forwards and focusing on a positive future.
Following all that anticipation and speculation of how the experience will play out and the pay off of the actual experience itself there is the period following it – that post-holiday, post-concert feeling where everything is reflected upon and relived as best as possible. People that have bought these experiences are arguably left with so much more than those that go in for material goods, even if there isn’t a physical item to show for it at the end; you may have acquired a “thing” as a result of your purchase, and it may have been something you have been keen to get, but there is little depth to it, unlike the many different abstract “things” collected from an experience. Experiences create far more memories and stories than things are generally able to and this can be easily relived and shared through photos and other media.
Purchases mean so much more to us when there is a story and an experience surrounding it.
For some people, this great divide between the happiness generated by an experience and the short-lived joy of a purchase has a simple solution – just do away with the concept of those spontaneous impulse buys and try and create an experience around your purchases. If you are going out of your way to look for a certain item then make an event of the trip to try and find it, plan the day with more little experiences around the purchase and try and find that sense of anticipation about it to make shopping for things an experience. If we can give greater meaning to a purchase, perhaps there will be better stories to tell afterwards and the positive feelings will have a sense of longevity on a par with those of concerts and holidays.
This idea of attaching meaning and experience to an item to make it seem more fulfilling and less hollow as a purchase is part of the reason why we often have so much attachment to the mementos and souvenirs we buy on our holidays – a necklace you buy in a market in India is not just a necklace, it is very specific piece that perhaps reminds you of the women you met on your travels, evokes images of the colors and vibrant culture you surrounded yourself with or reminds you of the time you first mastered foreign currency. The item is no longer just a thing – it is one of those combining parts of an experience and it has greater longevity than the high-street pendent in your dressing table because you will always be able to tell the story of where and how you got and remember the place vividly when you gaze upon it. Would you remember the street and sales staff in the other jewelry stores?
Experiences also give us a social connection to others that we cannot find when buying things.
This idea of telling stories brings us to another very important aspects of why buying experiences as so much more beneficial for the soul than buying things and that is the social side. We humans are a social bunch, most of us like to share things and experiences with others and even those that prefer to travel the globe alone want to be able to tell friends and family all about it when they get home. Experiences like holidays and concerts give us all those memories and tales and images to show to people and we can spend hours showing off photos and mementos on our return and people are generally happy to listen to any tale of foreign adventure long after the event. When you buy a thing and show it off to someone, how much conversation and shared experience does it bring between you beyond a simple “oh that’s nice/pretty/etc”? What story can you retell with that simple purchase? Additionally, there is little social interaction during the purchase of a thing beside a quick conversation with the staff and pretty much nothing preceding the event at all. With the experience of a concert or holiday there is the anticipation and conversation about what will occur and what else there may be to enjoy and you may even make new, like-minded friends in queues, hotels, niche cultural hangouts or elsewhere.Don’t buy things and be miserable; buy experiences like foreign travel and enjoy the happiness they provide for years to come.
Essentially, we should buy more experiences than things because they make us happy in so many more ways than a simple thing ever can – it may be beautiful, limited edition or have some other charm to it that makes it stand out for a short time but these things give us diminishing returns whereas the memories and impact of an experience affect us much more deeply and for much longer. The joy of an experience comes from all those different elements that it comprises of, the added social elements and the ability to recount it for years and years. It all comes down to a simple question – why are we so quick to spend so much money on these fleeting highs and simple, stagnant material goods when experiences are so much richer and fulfilling. We should be spending more on travelling, on going away to new lands, cultural exhibitions and concerts that can provide these resonating experiences and happiness, not on things.Travelling abroad is the ultimate form of buying an amazing experience that will stay with you because of the depth and variety of the different elements that will make up that overall experience. You will have the physical act of travelling on new roads, the new cultures and sights, the people and cuisine, the pre-holiday experience of planning, packing and boarding the plane, the post-holiday experience of telling the stories and showing the photographs and even the act of buying a souvenir that is enhanced by its place in that experience.