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Why ‘Buy Experiences, Not Things’ Is Bad Advice

Chasing ‘amazing’ experiences can be just another form of materialism

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

WWe’re over buying stuff, aren’t we? Tons of people have already cleared out half of their possessions after binging Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. “Materialistic” is an insult (sorry, Madonna). “Minimalist” is a compliment.

These days, we’re all about racking up experiences instead: traveling the world, attending music festivals, dining at Michelin-starred restaurants. Happiness, it seems, is no longer found in expensive purses and fast cars, but in getting out and exploring, trying, doing. Research backs up the “experience advantage.” Studies have shown that we bond over experiences more easily than over material things, derive more long-term satisfaction from experiences, and can link experiences to our identity in a more meaningful way.

And yet there is a dark side of this push toward experiences that too often goes undiscussed. After hugging a dolphin or taking a segway tour through Times Square, why are you left either feeling a little empty, or anxious to chase the next “amazing” thing? Why does the thrill quickly fade away?

Because we’re doing it wrong. “We’ve turned experience itself into a product,” writes psychotherapist Nancy Colier in Psychology Today. “No longer ‘in’ life or part of the stream of life, we consume our experiences like we would any other object.” We believe that chasing experiences instead of material things will bring us a deeper sense of emotional fulfillment. But once the initial excitement of an experience subsides, the moment ends up being stashed away in our minds, and it’s on to the next shiny new experience that captures our attention. And the cycle continues.

Clinical psychologist Mark B. Borg Jr., PhD., author of Don’t Be A D-ck: Change Yourself, Change Your World, explains that any time we look for fulfillment in something outside of ourselves — be it material or experiential — it’s still materialism. And often, materialism is a sign of looking for happiness in the wrong places.

“Are we using the ‘amazing’ experience, as we once used the bag and the car, to compensate for feelings of inferiority?” Borg says. “Do we overvalue ‘amazing’ experiences because they defend us against being consciously aware of issues that need to be resolved?”

To find authentic happiness in our experiences, we need to understand why we’re pursuing them. In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers found that people who were intrinsically motivated to spend money on life experiences reported higher levels of fulfillment and well-being than those who did so for extrinsic reasons. Meaning: Sure, go to the “superbloom” if you have a genuine interest in poppies — but it won’t feel as good if you’re just going to get a killer Instagram post.

Social media, of course, only fuels the cycle. Writes Colier, “Social media has convinced us that we’re supposed to be living a spectacular life without interruption. ‘Amazing’ should be the norm. Extraordinary should be our ordinary. We’re constantly searching for that fabulous experience that will make our life fabulous, and perhaps most importantly, make us fabulous.” There’s pressure to simply keep up, to “have a life.” We’ve lost the ability to be openly idle, to be bored.

Experiences certainly have the potential to enrich your life, as do material items. But before you book tickets for that rare whiskey tasting or colorful pop-up exhibit or ancient Japanese tie-dyeing workshop, ask yourself: Why? Why are you buying this experience? If you couldn’t post anything about it on social media, would you still want to do it?

And know that just because something is an awesome experience doesn’t mean it will make you satisfied in the long run. After all, like material things, experiences do eventually come to an end. A more sustainable strategy is to look for happiness and fulfillment in the day-to-day of life itself.

Content Writer | Former psychologist writing about how we think, feel, act, and thrive. Let’s talk: dawn.teh@pennedcopywrite.com

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