Life Experience or Material Possession


Mr Cheerful by Roger Hargreaves

Despite knowing that life experiences make us happier than purchasing material items, shoppers continue to spend money because of a belief that items are better value, a recent San Francisco State University study states in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

“People actually do know, and accurately predict, that life experiences will make them happier,” said SF State Associate Professor of Psychology Ryan Howell, a co-author of the study who has extensively researched the link between spending and happiness. “What they really underestimate is how much monetary value they will get out of a life experience. Even though they’re told experiences will make them happier and they know experiences will make them happier, they still perceive material items as being a better value.”

While I observe this happening and probably am guilty of it myself as my recent spending habits will no doubt confirm, I have a different perspective on why we do it anyway.

I want it now, not later

Shoppers are able to derive instantaneous pleasure and enjoyment out of a purchase that can also be lasting, if they are purchasing something like a car (possibly not out of need of one) or even just something simply like a book. Things that last and that one can go back to.

A life experience, however, requires much more time in order to plan for and organise, save and budget for, pack and purchase the required items for, while the actual experience itself is often much more fleeting.

I can therefore understand why people would feel that life experiences have less value than material possessions, but I don’t agree that it all has to be based on monetary worth. I feel that the association of economic value with ‘stuff’ is in fact a rather Asian way to think of things.

No money, you die

Why Asian, you may ask. Talking to a Singaporean who recently moved to Australia last December, he commented that it was interesting the differences between Singapore and Australia. In Singapore they would ask each other ‘Where did you go?’, where the ‘where’ aspect as important as it determined the value — i.e. what you spend on the experience.

In Australia, however, he noticed that people here seemed to ask ‘What did you do?’ more often, where what was done and experienced was more important than where was actually gone, because enjoyment from the experience was derived from the doing rather than going to exotic and expensive locations.

Co-author of the study, Associate Professor Ryan Howell suggests that “material items are a tangible reminder of what the item is worth”, whereas it is more difficult to place a price tag on memories. Arguably, memories are priceless though, and some of the most valuable things we can have.

The focus on the need to derive economic value from ‘purchases’, either of material possessions or life experiences is concerning to say the least. This preoccupation that we have with money, while it drives our lives and provide for us, can sometimes truly interfere with us growing and finding happiness.

Despite my recent spending record, I hope that in the next couple of months I can save a little more in order to put it towards those ‘life experiences’ that I’m yearning for and will keep with me for a lifetime, rather than wasting it on more material possessions that can only give me a fleeting sense of happiness.