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.
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?