Things have always made me unhappy. They bog me down. I prefer the lightness of experiences. They breeze in and out and through me. I don’t have to store them in a wardrobe. They don’t tumble down on my head when they’re stuffed into the top cupboard. They can just come for the ride and become part of me.

image via tumblr
image via tumblr

I have many theories on why material things shit me and why I shed them as soon as they’re thrust upon me (I’m constantly giving my things away to friends and staff). I’ve had to develop such theories because my aversion fascinates others and I’m constantly asked to explain myself. Others seem to find it hard to believe I have never owned a handbag. And that I’ve worn the same pair of green shorts for eight years (to be fair, two identical pairs, four years each).

But how’s this for a perspective…according to a bunch of boffins at Cornell University, the reason experiences make us happier is all in the anticipation. Their study, published in Psychological Science last month, found that awaiting an experience brings excitement, while awaiting a thing brings impatience. “You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation,” said one of the scientists, “and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive.”

But why? Well, because we’re less likely to measure the value of an experiences by comparing them to those of others. The scientists highlighted with this:

When asked if they’d rather have a higher salary that is lower than that of their peers, or a lower salary that is higher than that of their peers, most interviewees weren’t sure what they’d prefer. Serious.

But when asked, “Would you rather have two weeks of vacation when your peers only get one? Or four weeks when your peers get eight?” the bulk of people chose the latter with little hesitation.

There’s so much going on with this observation. Things inherently make us possessive, leading us to compare and compete – ugly human traits. This is definitely another factor in my aversion to things – the ugliness that comes attached to owning things.

Flipside, and somewhat ironically, it’s actually the impermanence – the fleetingness and imperfection – of experiences that endears us to them. When it rains through a beach holiday most people still speak fondly of the experience and how they played board games and it was a great family bonding experience or whatever. As the scientists told the Atlantic, “When our Macbook has the colourful pinwheel show up, we don’t say, ‘at least my computer and I get to spend more time together'”. No, indeed.

The Cornell study suggests that tied up with the joy of anticipation is the fact that we can imagine all sort of possibilities for what an experience is going to be. Not so with things. Imagining is fun. But it’s also freeing. There are no boundaries. No prescribed idea of how you should feel. There’s scope for expansion. And this is what we all so often seek in life. Right?

All of this and more steers my preference for experiences. To bushwalk rather than wander through a shopping mall on weekends. To spend my money on a big meal out with friends rather than on a pair of Manolos. To chip in for a house down the coast for a week with my family this Christmas (and the previous two), rather than buy presents.

What about you…things or experiences? And are you willing to make the shift to the latter? Like, really commit to it?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Meg

    Yes! I’ve been giving ‘dates’ to my family as presents for years and they have been wonderful! I’m highly anticipating this Christmas’ ones 🙂

    • My family all gave me hiking trips for my 40th in January!

  • Experiences over things, every day, hands down.

    I’ve also written about my feelings on this: http://kathleenmurphy.com.au/travel/experiences-not-things/

  • Loved reading this yesterday. I’ve been trying to can presents with my family for the last 12 months with minimal success. We all live so far away from each other – and sadly know little of what really makes each person tick – so usually end up spending hundreds of dollars on gifts that aren’t particularly personal PLUS postage. It’s a shame really. Have finally convinced half of my family to ditch the gifts all together this year, so that is a start! x

  • Hayley

    That article is fantastic Sarah, it is so true! I definitely spend more on experiences-particularly eating out and truly believe what my grandmother-beautiful wise lady- always says “3/4 the fun is getting there” because anticipation is exciting. However I had a think and I can’t lie. I do sometimes like to buy clothes and shoes…very much. And I do get enjoyment out of that very much if iv selected s carefully . The beautiful pair of heels gives you pleasure everytime you wear them because they make you feel sexy as you walk into a room. The gorgeous ring your husband ga

  • Hayley

    Woops sorry! The beautiful ring your hubby gave you sparkles and reminds you in the heat of another working day how much you love this man. How much he loves you (wedding ring I mean). So although I totally agree, I’d be a liar to say that sometimes possessions do provide happiness to a degree, the same with experience. The runners I invested in allow me to go on my bush runs and not have terribly sore feet and knees and so I really love those too! (As far as runners go!!) so I guess for me its 80/20 perhaps!:) gets you thinking!! Thanks Sarah!

  • Experiences

    Experiences! Especially travel. The only things I really buy are books – usually I buy them from an op-shop then donate them when I’m finished.

    I tend to make cards & write letters for Christmas. My family and I buy each other token things from op-shops because it encourages you to really put thought into the gift. Then we all go to the theatre and dinner for joint Christmas present.

  • Cherie

    Interesting. As a former addict of stuff, I am trying to incorporate the less is more mentality into my daily life. Being more conscious of each purchase. Why am I buying this, do I need it or merely want it? Does it add value or is it more stuff? For xmas this year, it is just my father and I so we want to exchange gifts, so I have asked for things I actually need not want. I am getting tools and am very excited about this.

    • Cherie

      By former addict, I mean it is a total work in progress haha.

    • Good on you for working on it…

  • Laura

    I too prefer experiences! I remember a blissful cross-country move in which I took only what I could fit in my car. In general, I think people benefit from scaling back in what they own and purchase. At the same time, there are objects that can have importance (art that I look at every day, books I re-read) that I can enjoy for a lifetime and also some that contribute to an experience (a couch to host friends, skis to use on the mountain with one’s family through the winter, a platter to serve food)…so I find that things and experiences are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think things have anything inherent to them (good or bad) other than the power that we give to them. Thanks for the discussion!

    • EKougi

      I agree Laura. On the whole people should aim to see the true value of a thing. Sometimes purchases are valueless regardless of how much you paid for them, there are practical purchases (because undies with too many holes just aren’t called undies anymore) and there are things that lift your spirit (for me it’s the art on my walls and books too) and they could have cost very little. I think it’s about consciously buying something rather than thinking that you need something when you really don’t.

  • Nice counterpoint to comments from our treasurer today that we should all ‘not let Santa down’ and ‘spend up big for Christmas’. Ugh :-/

  • Yes! Ever since I left my marketing job earlier this year (i.e. trying to make people buy things!), sold most of my stuff and left to backpack for a year or so, I feel so free! My whole life is now contained in a backpack and yet I probably feel even more ‘whole’ than I did at home when surrounded by all my things. All of my money is now spent on experiences, I no longer buy things – because those memories are the ones that are going to last forever. I think about this experiences vs things debate often and hope I can maintain my a current attitude when I return home one day!

  • San

    Having lived with a good salary and then with a smaller amount of money, I can say that I can live with a minimum amount of new clothes, etc. Sometimes, though, I like something new and nice, especially when my old shoes begin to have holes 😉 But, yeah, experiences are something entirely different. I feel so good after good conversations and laughs with friends, no money can buy this and no money can improve this!

  • monica

    I really enjoyed this post, especially the explanation on why experiences make us happier than materialistic stuff. I’ve thought about that for a while and always failed to pinpoint this particular feeling. excitement and joy vs. impatience. shows that we/I still have to learn a lot when it comes to introspection, observing one’s own feelings. but this finding definitely helps to be more aware when we’re buying stuff that we actually don’t need. A while ago I read an article on psychological obsolescence, which seems to play an even bigger part in our buying behaviour than planned obsolescence. People now buy a new flat screen tv every 6 years, because they think they need the latest and best version. In contrast CRT-TVs got replaced every 12 years. And this buying frenzy gets even more ridiculous with mobile phones. People tend to replace their mobiles every 2 years. These number refer to Austria or Germany (cant quite remember) but I think it won’t be that different in the rest of Europe, the US or Oz

  • Marisa

    My husband has a “stuff aversion” and is all about this too. And it’s not just because he’s a Scandinavian minimalist. We are quite thrifty and my favourite kind of shopping is grocery shopping. But I am such a sentimentalist that it is hard for me to separate things (that are given to us) from the emotion behind the giving of the gift or my connection to certain people. But I am all for experiences/time shared with loved ones replacing “stuff”.

    • Marisa, I think we share the same feeling with the sentimentalism. I might have even shed a tear when we said goodbye to our 17 year old Jeep which was the car that had served us so incredibly well for such a long time (as my husband said, “That Jeep doesn’t owe anybody anything.” 🙂 But he sounds a lot like your husband. Our basement storage unit is a mess and he just wants to haul it out the front of our building and set fire to it 🙂 I want to make sure there isn’t anything in there that I want to keep. And then of course the circle is complete as we again wrestle with my sentimentality and his practically (which I should probably buy into more often).

      • Marisa

        Hi Lizzie! My husband has a far easier time letting go of anything, really. As soon as I invest emotion in something (be it a place, person, project or object), I feel a sense of loss when saying goodbye or moving on. I really think this is just my personality. I don’t want to stop being a sensitive person (I tried to “switch it off” as a teenager, with dire consequences), but I am working on not letting my emotional responses to things stop me from making positive changes or moving on when I need to. Best wishes to you!

  • Cherie

    For the past couple of years, our family has given each other a ‘day of service’ where we come together on a weekend during the year and help each family to undertake a ‘big job’. It might be putting up a fence, or gardening for the day – whatever the individuals choose. At the end of the ‘day of service’ we share a meal together and a few drinks, and sit back and admire our handy work! It’s been the best shared time together – and eliminates the pressure of buying Chrissy presents at this time of the year.

  • Ahh! Someone else with the compulsiveness to immediately give things away! I look at my fridge, my desktop iMac and my mattress and think “you’re weighing me down”, not “oh wow, this feels like home”.

    I think it comes from being a happy backpacker in my 20s…because yes, I could have a million different experiences (walking across Spain/going to a medieval festival in Germany/working on a megayacht in the Mediterranean) all in the same pair of shoes, the same shorts and alternating between two grey tshirts… I didn’t need any”thing” else.

    This “need to not have stuff” is making it quite impossible to buy my first home though….perhaps the timeshare will make a comeback for us non-stuff peeps.

  • Matthew Cheyne

    I don’t accept material things anymore as gifts unless they can help me in my day to day life to experience more. I would much rather somebody demonstrate their love for me by giving me their unconditional acceptance and attention. Sadly though, out of all the people I have known from birth to through to my 37th year of life, it has only been my 88 year old Nanna who have given me such love. She has incurable cancer, heart congestion and kidney failure and this Christmas may well be her last. But I carry with me in my heart all the positive experiences I have had with her over the years. And that’s at the heart of why I won’t accept material things: I want experiences that I take with me to my grave in my own old age. Nobody ever regretted opening their minds to new cultures, languages and traditions through meeting other people through travel or even in just our day to day lives. But there are plenty of people who regret spending countless sums of money on the latest look or gadget. Such people wasted their lives in the process.

  • connie Curtis

    Yes I totally agree.. experience over things. I buy things that I need but to do experiences there is nothing better

  • I can really resonate with this post. When my mother passed away this year i reflected on her life and it wasn’t the stuff that she had collected over a lifetime that i remembered (and to be fair my mum lived a very simple life in terms of possessions and was the most content person i have ever known); but the memories and experiences with her that live on. After her passing i found myself shedding my possessions. I had to ask myself how much happiness did they actually bring me and for the majority of it i found them to be a mental burden rather then joy giving. I still get caught up in the broken record of my inner monologue that compares what i have to others….but if i return my focus to my mother i always come back to the truth – that experiences build a happy & content life.

    • I feel the same way about my dad who passed away a year ago and was always about repairing and making things rather than buying them. He spent 25 years traveling the world as a merchant marine engineer rather than sitting at a drafting board, which is where he made the decision to leave and travel instead. Those experiences gave him so much more than any one item ever could. It gave him a family (he met my mum on a ship he was on), endless entertaining stories and adventures, compassion for those from different backgrounds, and an ability to connect and make friends with almost anyone. Sure, we had a nice house (that started as a one bed and they added on over the years to make a four bed), and the basic materials for a happy childhood, but when we talk about growing up, my brother and I share stories of o/s trips to visit family, weeks on the NSW coast, backyard cricket, hikes, those rare restaurant outings . . all things you can’t put in a box 🙂 My mum sometimes comes out and says she thinks she wasn’t a very good mother. I share some of the things above with her to let her know that she and my dad gave us more than we could ever ask for.

  • Candi Papadopulos

    Loved this! Thanks Sarah x

  • Jackie

    Instead of presents and a birthday party, my daughter got to cuddle a giant panda in China for her birthday last year. She was eight at the time. She looked forward to it all year and is still talking about it a year later. She was so keen she even contributed all her savings towards the cost as well. It was expensive but well worth it (and the money helps save more pandas). An experience of a lifetime.

  • I don’t like things either. Yet I also don’t want an experience forced upon me. I find it equally stressful to have to fit another thing into my already busy schedual. Every voucher I’ve been given has lasped unused. I don’t look forward to it, rather it’s someone else expectation I feel that I need to live up to.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on this. How do you perceive me Sarah?

  • valerielyns

    I totally agree with this theory. I love to travel, and would much rather spend my hard earned money on the experience of seeing a new
    country or culture then buying a new . . . anything. Also, the planning
    and anticipation of an upcoming adventure is almost as much fun as the trip itself.
    Before I sign off, I have to mention the couple in the picture who seem about to roll off the edge of whatever they are lying on and crash to their deaths. I sincerely hope they survived this photo shoot.