Living With a Purpose: Why Experiences are Better than Belongings

If you’ve ever bought something that you’ve had your eye on, you might have experienced an initial rush of pleasure after finally purchasing that item. But as you know, that sense of pleasure can be fleeting. According to Fast Company, the reason for that is twofold: material items, though they can bring joy, remain separate from us – but experiences actually become part of who we are.

Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor quoted in the article, says human beings are quite excellent at adapting to change. “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.” This concept ties into what’s referred to as the Easterlin paradox— the idea that one can temporarily gain happiness through material objects, but that happiness won’t last. Basically, Dr. Gilovich noted that when a person buys something, they feel joy. However, because material things don’t change, they’re easier to adapt to. Once that initial happiness fades, the material item becomes a part of our everyday concerns. We’re happy with that new car at first, but after a while it becomes another daily object that needs to be maintained, scrutinized – and even criticized when compared to newer cars.

Experiences, on the other hand, are over and done in an instant, which means they’re difficult to adapt to and control. We have a tendency to assess experiences, which can provoke emotional responses. At the end of the day, experiences shape our identities. And a positive experience—or, surprisingly, even a negative one that you discuss and share with others—can lead to greater self-awareness and an overall boost in happiness. “We consume experiences directly with other people,” says Dr. Gilovich. “And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.” Even if someone wasn’t with you, you’re more likely to bond over both having biked in Glacier National Park than you are over both owning Fitbits.

Gilovich notes that while you may like material objects, they’re not a part of your identity—experiences and your memories of those events shape your identity. “You can really like your material stuff,” he says. “You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

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