Most people in this world are searching for happiness. It’s what we’ve been told to achieve ever since we were born. Everyone wants to be happy. But this concept of “happy” can get lost in interpretation. What really makes a person happy? Is it this typical image of successful, wealthy and good-looking? Or is there more to it than that? Can we buy happiness or does it come from within?
While what truly makes a person happy varies with the individual, researchers have found that experiences make people happier almost all the time in comparison to possessions. This is for a variety of reasons
The main reason experiences make people happier than material things is because the happiness from an experience lasts longer. You’ll never forget that amazing time you and your friends stayed up until 3 am talking and eating pizza, but you’ll quickly become tired of that trendy sweater. The initial bliss that comes with that most recent purchase is more likely to fade than a memory. A study done by Ryan Howell, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, questioned 154 students about a purchase they made within the past 3 months. The purchase could be a possession or an experience. Overwhelmingly, the people that discussed an experiential purchase showed higher rates and longer-lasting rates of contentment. Happiness that derives from an experience will only increase with time while happiness from a possession will flee as material things quickly become obsolete. Also, a lot of happiness in a “thing” comes from anticipation and not the actual thing. Sometimes, the happiness never quite “arrives” where as with an experience, it always does and you can always look back fondly. According to journalist James Hamblin, even if its a bad experience, it might make a funny story!
According to Howell, another reason that experiences generate more sustainable joy than possessions is because they involve other people and human connection is a major root of internal delight. Getting closer with other people has proven to make a person happier. Also, experiences increase a sense of feeling alive and exhilarated. This feeling is never going to come from a new pair of shoes or new phone, but it definitely will from a concert or trip to a different country.
My mom always said that comparison is the root of all unhappiness and all signs point to this being true. Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich’s research suggests that people aren’t as likely to compare the joy of their experiences whereas people tend to compare the value of their possessions often. In one study, psychology professor Daniel Gilbert asked a group of people (the ages and number of participants in unknown- not giving total credibility to this study) if they would rather have a high salary that is lower than their coworkers or a low salary that is higher than that of their coworkers. The answers were pretty much half and half. But when the same participants were asked if they would rather have two vacations weeks while their coworkers only get one, or four vacation weeks while their coworkers get eight, the overwhelming majority of participants chose the latter. This shows that most people don’t feel the need to compete and compare experiences but often people compare possessions.
Happiness varies from person to person but these studies suggest the next time you’re between using that next paycheck to go out with friends or buy that new shirt, go with your friends. You’ll be happier in the long run.
Photo: Kumar et al, Psychological Science/The Atlantic