Has our need for the materialistic run its sorry end? Are we wanting more out of life than ‘things’ that only serve to demonstrate something about the ‘me’ right at this minute?

In this article, I’m going to share insights into achieving a sustained sense of well-being. According to much of the research available today, experiences create far more happiness than material ‘things’, so why buy more ‘things’?

It’s true that we are more environmentally aware and there’s a growing understanding of the impact that more ‘things’ have on the planet.

It’s also true that as we get older, we generally want less and settle for the things we already have and value. We don’t need so much stuff and equally, as more of us move to the cities, there’s less space for ‘things’ too.

So it’s not surprising that research suggests that developed countries are becoming less materialistic than they were in the 1980s. But is this transition really about the environment, growing older and not having so much space?

Arguably it’s more about a gradual change in mindset – a realisation that ‘things’ are just material objects we feel a need to own.

Over time, we’ve learnt that ‘things’, just like ‘sugar’, have little staying power. The brain gets a sudden high but then the high, and the excitement it creates quickly dissipates. And just like sugar the brain needs another ‘thing’ to bring the ‘high’ back.  And it’s addictive.

Think about a material object you purchased or received a couple of months ago. Perhaps it was a new jacket, a TV, an iPhone or a nice pair of shoes. No matter how significant they seemed at the time, the chances are they don’t matter much now.

Objects are functional, they are still there but provide very little by way of a daily dose of joy or happiness. Yet whilst they are still there, we wouldn’t want to lose them.  The sense of loss is too great so we must continue to seek more ‘things’ just to get that ‘high’ back.

It’s the paradox of consumption.

Now think about an experience you have had. You may have received it as an experience gift or just created the moment yourself. It could be a family holiday, an outing, a big concert, a drive in a European sports car or a sailing cruise.

How are you feeling now?

It’s these experiences that stay with us in our memories.

Throughout our life, experiences are recalled time and time again and shared with friends and loved ones. These experiences have a special place in our life, helping to connect us with others. And it’s those connections that make life more meaningful.

Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, who has been studying the question of money and happiness for over 20 years noted in recent research that “We buy things to make us happy and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first but then we adapt to them.”

So rather than buying the latest big thing, Gilovich suggests there’s far more happiness to be enjoyed by spending money on experiences like going to art exhibits, doing outdoor activities, traveling or sharing a balloon flight with a friend.

Gilovich states “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods.” He goes on, “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

An important difference between ‘things’ and experiential purchases is how relative satisfaction with them tends to unfold with time. A new car purchased today may become an annoyance in the future as it begins to fail and more frequent trips are required to the mechanic.

On the contrary, an experience shared with a friend is often embellished in memory. Even experiences that turn out to be dreadful become a good story in the future and are fun to retell.

The fact that experiences, more so than material possessions, tend to encourage interaction between people means they help build strong bonds of friendship. These bonds are most critical in creating a sense of sustained well-being.

From many viewpoints, in the pursuit of happiness we are far more likely to achieve a sustained well-being through experiences over ‘things’.

Not sure which experience is the right one?

When it comes to choosing an experience, each person is very different. If you want to purchase an experience as a gift for a loved one, it can help to take a look at some of the top sellers for ideas. Overlay these with the knowledge you already have…

  1. Picture your loved one or friend taking the experience – This is where you make some decisions about their likes and dislikes. For instance, skydiving may be no good if heights are a problem.Your best approach for getting this right will differ, so give this some serious thought.
  2. What experiences have they enjoyed before – You may need to ensure you get them something similar but not necessarily the same. This is about creating memories they can easily recall.
  3. Can you combine the material with the experience – They may have a love for cars but the car they want has always been out of reach. It may well be out of reach but you can get them to experience it first-hand.

On the day, make sure there are people around them that they know. Close friends and family can share the experience by being there. The memories that it creates will help bring friends and family closer together.

What is the best experience you recall that compels you to want to share it with friends and family?