16 December 2013

Having, Experiencing & Ethical Consumption

source: flickr

When Emma heard I was going to spend one week in Montreal, she kindly offered to write a guest post for la Nife to keep this rolling over here. In her very complete and thoughtful article below, she challenges the "experiences over objects" mantra and offers a different suggestion on ethical consumption - or how objects and experiences can meet on a common ground.

Having, Experiencing and Ethical Consumption, Where The Two Meet
Guest post by Emma from This Kind Choice.

"Experiences over things" is a common mantra on many minimalist and simple living blogs, especially at this gift giving time of year. It's a great attitude in so many ways, but are experiences and objects mutually exclusive? As someone who loves clothes and uses them as ways of connecting with and remembering people, places and moments, I'm not entirely convinced they are. What about that cross over point where experiences happen through or are associated with objects? And how can this be used to create an enjoyable, ethical way of consuming?

Experiences are often defined as being an "event that a person lives through", while objects are things that are "kept in a person's possession". Many people (and a few studies) cite experiences as creating a higher level of long term happiness because we are more likely to see them positively in retrospect and satisfy psychological needs through them. Things, on the other hand, are often said to provide short term pleasure that quickly diminishes when we consider alternatives we did not buy (The Paradox Of Choice is a great TED talk that touches on this - well worth a watch). It makes sense - you feel pretty awesome about your new iPhone until 30 seconds later the next one comes out.

So far, so good. It seems pretty simple. But in my experience, we can also live through objects - your grandmother's bag that reminds you of her every time you use it, the jacket that will forever be your "London jacket" after finding it during an afternoon of shopping while on holiday, the necklace your friend gave you for your 25th birthday. Are these things less worthy or less capable of producing long lasting happiness? And how can we use this idea to get the most enjoyment out of the things we do have or need, thus minimizing the need to buy more?

Let's look at the possible social dimension of both experiences and objects as a different way of evaluating whether something will give us that longer lasting enjoyment. In a different study (To Do, to Have or to Share? Valuing Experiences Over Material Possessions Depends On The Involvement Of Others by Caprariello & Reis), whether something was an object or experience was said to have less importance in determining long term happiness than whether we involved other people in our experiences or possessions. So basically, if the things we owned or did involved others, they were more likely to make us happy than if they were bought or experienced alone.

You might be thinking that I'm throwing this whole "experiences over things" idea out of the window, and instead saying "Go forth and buy stuff, but only if it involves others!". This isn't where I'm heading - of course many experiences are often more environmentally friendly and ethically made than material objects, so they get lots of ticks from me. But the reality is, there are certain things we really need or want to buy and own. This idea can provide clues as to how to choose things in these cases that make us genuinely satisfied. Not just at the time of purchase, but for a long time to come. And cultivating that satisfaction is such an important step towards a feeling of having enough and not needing to buy more. In a nutshell, understanding what makes us happy allows us to choose those things, enjoy them, and let go of the useless extra.

So how can we involve others in the things we do buy? It can sound like buying gear for team sports or a game of monopoly for the family are the only ways to add that social dimension, but that doesn't have to be the case. While these are certainly great options, they don't work for everyone or every purchase - my hand eye co-ordination happens to be absolutely horrendous, and I've never had the patience for two hour board games. Instead, approaching the things we do buy with the idea of looking beyond ourselves allows for more adaptation.

Ethical shopping habits are often centered around exactly this - the intent to look at ourselves, and then look at others, too. Investigating brands that care about their workers provides that social connection with the people making our clothes, second hand shopping with a friend makes for some great memories, making something ourselves from an internet DIY gives us a connection with a person on the other side of the world. They might not be the most conventional ways of including others in what we own, but they do allow us to make our possessions so much more meaningful. And that meaning can be a stepping stone to loving what we do have, and leaving the relentless desire to add more behind.


  1. I've seen the paradox of choice video before, and I do mentally refer back to it. I've read that people that spend their money on experiences do tend to be happier than those that spend money on stuff. And I can think of myself, when I think back on the years I was the happiest what they all have in common is that I went on vacation, not the years that I bought 20 pieces of clothing. But in the idea of purchases, I tend to value the things that I bought in person more than the things I bought on-line.

    1. I found it a memorable video, especially when he talks about his experiences buying jeans.
      It's very interesting to consider what kind of things make us truly happy, and like you I find vacations fulfilling in the long term too. For the times when we really need an object (eg. we need a new piece of furniture or clothing because an old one has broken) it can be useful to have another strategy to aim for that long term happiness.

  2. I think what you're saying is that objects/possessions that have experiences tied to them bring the same (or similar) joy/satisfaction that regular memories do.

    1. Hi Sonya,
      Yes I do think that objects that are connected to experiences or people can be just as satisfying as memories. Looking for ways of making that connection can be a good way of getting more fun out of those objects :)

  3. i liked this post and i can think of a few items that i really love because i connect them with special memories. at the same time i think of the huge bag of band t shirts i donated last year. for a long time i bought a shirt after almost every concert i went to. i thought it would make a good memorie and would, one day, proof to my children what a cool kid i was^^
    but merch shirts often have a wierd cut and half of them where never worn.
    i guess what i am trying to say is, that you have to be careful and figrue out your real intentions before making a purchase (i still collect the tickets. they are expensive enough.).

  4. Great points, Emma! I think that both experiences and objects have a place in our world. I'd say that on the whole, certain experiences are probably more worthwhile since they stand the test of time and objects don't. However, I know there are certain objects I really value as well--things like pictures from my times abroad, old letters from friends, jewelry from special people, and little trinkets that just remind me of something or someone I loved. I don't think it's wrong to also value objects, I think where we get in trouble is when we value them more than our relationships and other people.