To Have or To Do? That Is The Question

Possessions or Experiences?


Even in these tough economic times, you may find yourself with a bit of cash to spare. You've been working hard, and you want to treat yourself. Should you spend it on an "experience", such as an soft adventure tour, sporting event or concert? Or a material object? Maybe you been thinking about a new car, or that 60" high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound (I want one). Which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term? Which choice is the better investment?

Recent Research May Provide The Answer

An experience may generate positive memories that outlast the allure of a new material possession. Recent psychological research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions. That's in part because the initial joy of acquiring a new object, such as a new car, fades over time as people become accustomed to seeing it every day. Experiences, on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.

I am a homebody, who watches too much TV (I am told) but I would REALLY enjoy that plasma screen. But, I also have the unenviable burden of REALLY enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my friends are quite happy to live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into traveling, I really do like a few special home comforts (Big Screen TV, hint … hint …. new 17 inch MacBook Pro …. hint … hint … iPod Touch …. and lots and lots of traveling. Alas, not being Donald Trump, or married to his daughter (is she available?), I usually have to pick between the adventure trip or the slab of smoked ribs.

I think what was most striking about this Study was in how participants said others around them reacted to either the purchased object or experience. Experiences led to more happiness in others than purchases did. A sense of relatedness to others — getting closer to friends and family — may be one of the reasons why experiences generate more happiness.

"When people spend money on life experiences, whether they also take someone with them or buy an extra ticket or whatever, most of our life experiences involve other individuals," says Study author Dr. Ryan Howell. People were fulfilling their need for social bonding while having these experiences, he said.

Feeling Alive

Another reason for increased happiness in experiences, the researchers found, was that people felt a greater sense of vitality or "being alive" during the experience and in reflection, Howell said. "As nice as a new computer or plasma screen TV might be, it's not going to make you feel alive."

Most psychologists who study this phenomenon say people adapt to a new purchase in six to eight weeks, up to a maximum of three months. That means the initial pleasure we get from a new possession generally fades in a matter of months.

Experts also point out that people are less self-conscious when comparing experiences than they are about possessions. It will probably bother you more that your friend's home theater is better than yours than if your friend saw more sights on a South Seas vacation.

Better to Give Than to Recieve

Experiences form powerful and important memories that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. So what about Birthdays, Valentine's Day, and Christmas. Does this research mean we should give a gift of a nice dinner or a weekend getaway, rather than a material present, such as a necklace, watch or plasma screen TV?

The issue of happiness conferred to others has been studied less, so the answer is unclear. It would be expected that this principle of experiences over possessions still apply, because the act of giving or receiving an object as a gift is an experience in itself.

Gifts of material possessions often become keepsakes and have sentimental value that increase with time, instead of diminishing like most material goods. People are fulfilling their need for social bonding while having these experiences. Another reason for increased happiness in experiences, according to the researchers, was that people felt a greater sense of vitality or "being alive" during the experience and in reflection.


As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance to me. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the flora while standing in a jungle-clearing in Mexico, or the feel of swimming with Dolphins and snorkeling with Sea Lions. I will never forget the first glimpse of the spectacular view from the top of Aztec and Mayan pyramids. Or the wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Nashville and another in Washington D.C. The incredible feeling of watching the sunset into the Pacific Ocean during a warm June night.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminum woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Sierra Madres foothills or photograph howler monkeys at sunrise.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 36” hard screen TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

Dr. Michael Thompson

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