Experiences vs possessions. Which makes you happier?

I drive a Volkswagen Polo, the 1.2 litre highline version. It’s no Ferrari, but it’s my first brand new car. I must admit that whenever I see another Polo, the first thing I see is the wheels: the ‘comfortline’- can you imagine a more direct affront to your social status than the word comfortline– are left without alloys. Obviously, the ownership of alloy wheels is not a competition and nothing to be particularly proud of (it is and I’m winning. Nice hubcaps) but it does fill me with a certain sense of pride.

It’s certainly a happy day, driving away in your new top-of-the-line car. Everyone loves that smell. A year later however it’s now my car, not my new car, highlighted by the scratches you get when you park in New Delhi. To remind me of this, parked just a few doors down from my flat, is a brand new VW Polo, the GT TSI model. I can only assume the owner is lacking performance in other areas…

The truth is that there’s an expiration date on happiness derived from material possessions, and even though there’s no doubt that certain things can make our lives easier, more comfortable, happier to a certain extent; but we adapt and get used to these material goods. New becomes your normal.

“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University who has been studying the question of money and happiness for over two decades. “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 what’s a better value for money when you’re stuck deciding between the new iPhone or an experience such as a vacation or an outdoor adventure? Perhaps it’s a logical assumption that a physical object will make your life better, and last longer, than a one-off experience – let’s say a stunning aerial Zip Tour for example 😉 – but you’d be wrong.


“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. “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.”

To add to this, you’re also much less likely to negativity compare Mr GT TSI’s experiences (cliché clubbing holiday to Ibiza with a group of lewd college friends) with your own (bungee jumping whilst backpacking through New Zealand. I know that’s a cliché. Shut up).

Put simply: when you’re old and grey, your grandchild sitting on your prosthetic knee (bungee accident), will you be telling the story of that time you bought a new iPhone? Or the time you faced your fear of heights on a 400m long zip line over a fort-palace in Rajasthan…



For more details on Dr. Gilovich’s research, check out this fantastic blog post from fastcoexist.com: http://www.fastcoexist.com/3043858/world-changing-ideas/the-science-of-why-you-should-spend-your-money-on-experiences-not-thing

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