12 March 2013

Experiences Over Stuff

Source; Tumblr

In my latest post about minimalism, I mentioned that to me, one of its core values is to shift priorities from material possessions to experiences - whether it is social or self actualization ones. As a study from Cornell University seems to indicate, this "experience over stuff" mindset seems to make people happier.

I wanted to share this study with you because I am actually experiencing this. I don't know for sure if that is the (only) cause, but ever since I started shifting my priorities from growing my material collection to living more experiences and learn more things, I've been much happier.

Here is a short summary of these findings and how they can be linked to other things I have read or watched lately (TED talks!)

The Comparison Problem

It seems one of the main sources of insatisfaction from material possessions is that we tend to compare our collection to somebody else's, and there will always be someone who has more/better objects than you do. As I already wrote about, comparison hardly leads to happiness. It seems that we compare experiences less easily than we compare objects, because it is much harder to quantify, or assess the quality of an experience.

The Paradox of Choice

Here is a great talk by Barry Schwartz about the various problems of having too much choice. Studies prove that, when we have a choice between two equivalent objects, we can be less satisfied by our purchase because we worry that we made the wrong choice. Given the vast array of choice in any kind of object today, imagine how much time we can spend worrying we made the wrong one. 

Again, with social experiences or self actualization/learning, the parameter of choice is mostly irrelevant, because each experience is unique.

Setting Higher Standards

I read a piece in the latest Cl├ęs magazine, about human adaptability. Among the various topics, one caught my eye: it says that on the flip side of this adaptability, it can undermine our happiness because we adapt to good things, meaning that they become normal and we stop being happy about them. We adapt to this new standard and we set our expectations to that higher level. 

On the other hand, getting great experiences help us grow, learn new things, nurture our relationships with other people, which means that on the long term, the benefits of experiences make us happier than new stuff.

So, In Concrete Actions...?

What does "Experiences over Stuff" mean in real life? Of course, it is first and foremost, how we spend our money. If this study is correct, we would be happier spending our income on experiences (travel, night out with friends, museum ticket or week-end away...) rather than material objects. Now, when I save money, it is not for a new console or a new MacBook anymore, it is for a great vacation with my partner, or a triple star restaurant, or weekly violin lessons... 

Actually, a good trick I have found is to keep my material needs for (Christmas or birthday) present wishlists. Handling presents can be difficult when your loved ones don't share your vision on simplicity and stuff. So now, I share a wishlist or ask for a more expensive item people team up to get me. That way, they are sure to offer me something I will appreciate despite my minimalist mindset.

Finally, there is always a way to fight this tendency to adapt and get used to new objects, and be happier with what we have, simply by being grateful ...

What do you think about this? What kind of experiences do you (or would you) spend your money on? Are you happy with your material purchases? How to you keep that satisfaction going?

16 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post - and something that I must admit that I am hoping to move towards as well. After going over my expenditures on clothing, I re-assessed my wardrobe and came to the conclusion that I didn't really need all that I had. That I was justifying keeping these possessions for, I'm not even sure what reason, and I'll be much more mobile when I part with a chunk of it.

    Experiences you can talk about for years, whereas how long, and how interesting is a conversation about the newest pair of shoes you bought or this expensive new handbag. But sometimes it just takes a while to realise this..

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    1. It takes a while, and then I think we have to realise it over and over again too! :)

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    2. "Mobile", yes! I started realizing these things when I moved back from Japan and felt weight down by all the stuff I'd bought there. Also, the first time I traveled with only a hand luggage, I felt so free... I guess traveling is a good way to become aware of the "burden" capacity of material possessions.

      It is also true that the shift in values takes time, and that it needs some reminders. In this consumerist society we are so compelled to buy more objects, and tricked into believing that it will make us happy, that we need regular reminders that it isn't necessarily true. For me, blogging about simplicity is a great way to develop my awareness of these things... I hope reading it helps you too!

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  2. I completely agree- I've learned these values when I was traveling as well. When traveling europe with just a luggage bag I was surprised by how little I subsisted on, but how happy I was with little. It was liberating.

    Like you said, like watching movies, experience itself is rewarding and to purchasing DVD's to watch in the future is futile since DVD's don't elicit the same feeling. I also realized that if you realize watching it at the movies( or any other experience) is going to only happen that ONE time, then you cherish it more and live in the moment more.

    On choices, I've watched the paradox of choice a few weeks ago and I thought the same thing-- this is why I think many girls look at their closet full of clothes and feel like "they have nothing to wear" because there are too many choices and they can't choose.

    I stumbled upon your blog through other minimalist blogs and I must say I resonate with yours the most! It must be because I am an INTJ as well!

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    1. Travel is definitely a good way to become aware of these things. Moving to a new city/far away from home can be a wake up call too, it's so cumbersome to move a lot of stuff around on long distances!

      It is true that maybe in our society we also forget to cherish the experiences we live. It's the "here and now" thing, we tend to spend more time thinking about other things rather than enjoying the present moment. Definitely a subject worth of more posts!

      Thanks for appreciating my blog! I would never have imagined that several readers are INTJ like me, it's interesting to observe though, I guess the content of my blog resonates with similar personalities...

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  3. There have been so many studies lately on this. Overwhelming research says that experiences and expressing gratitude makes us happier. Remember this article- http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/21/the-right-way-to-try-to-buy-happiness/ I would agree with this. The one off experiences that I have had (which usually involve travel, spending time with loved ones, getting to see something made by hand, exhibitions or theater) mean so much more than material things.

    In addition to experiences for myself being able to give back and give that experience to someone else, personally makes me happiest. Would happily give up a trip etc. to be able to give more to my charities or my family's foundation. There have been a lot of studies on this as well.

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    1. Thanks for the link!
      I watched a TED talk on the topic lately too, a study seems to prove that we are happier when we spend money on others than when we spend it on ourselves - whether it is a gift to close ones or charity donations.

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  4. Such a lovely post, Kali, and thank you for all the links! I have bookmarked all of them for a calmer evening :)

    I have definitely prioritized experiences over material things more and more over the last few years, and travel in particular. Not necessarily long trips abroad, but a lot more trips to visit friends and family around the country. I have also made a point to get out into nature a lot more - my city is surrounded by 7 mountains, so there a lot of hiking opportunities!

    I also love spending money on seeing my favorite performers. Most of them don't visit Norway very often, so they they do I throw caution to the wind and order the tickets without overthinking it. I'm going to see Louis C K in a few weeks and Eddie Izzard in a month, and although these two trips put together cost as much as a small holiday I don't regret it for a second :)

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    1. I can relate to that! Since I moved to Paris I think train tickets are me second biggest budget after the rent. Sometimes we forget that we don't need to go far away for a long time to discover new things or enjoy time with friends.

      Live performances are also a big one - I now spend my "culture" budget on theater pieces, concerts and shows rather than DVD or CDs. It is so much more impactful. Besides, when you listen to the music/watch the piece afterwards, it reminds you of that special moment...

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  5. I love how you summed up everything. I don't buy things all that often but now have learnt to enjoy the experience of seeing them. I recognized that you don't have to "own" it to enjoy it. When do I buy something, it's all the more special and important to me, thus raising the value of the object more than it is necessarily "worth" before.

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    1. You know, I've read a crazy study about that: it says that people who assemble online collections like pinning likes on Pinterest or creating a wardrobe on Polyvore actually enjoy this collection exactly as much as they would if they actually bought the objects and owned the collection. I can't find the link to that study, I should keep the url of interesting papers somewhere...

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    2. Oh wow, I actually believe that! I'd love to read it!

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  6. thank you for sharing this thoughtful post. i will always have a great appreciation for life's beautiful things. i think i've come to realize that it's possible to balance that with an even greater appreciation for the experiences and people who really make us who we are. :)

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    1. Thanks for the appreciation note! It is true that in a way, the experiences we live, and the way we remember them, shape who we are now, maybe in a better way than objects do. Although I understand the appreciation of beautiful objects - I also do appreciate the selection of objects I have decided to buy and use every day.

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  7. I've been trying to gift people with experiences rather than "things" for special occasions as well, and it's actually been a far more satisfying experience, probably because it requires so much more thought. I've been telling friends for years I'd rather have one fantastic day or meal out with them rather than a physical gift and I mean every word. Not that I don't love a well-chosen "thing" - if I need a watch I would love a thoughtfully chosen watch, for instance.

    (Great post as usual.)

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    1. Offering experiences can be a great idea indeed. When you choose it carefully, the other person creates memories out of your gift and it can mean more than a physical object. I guess it also depends on the other person's state of mind, of course...

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