Why experiences are better than possessions

Are we transitioning beyond materialism? There’s plenty of evidence that we are, from the rise of collaborative consumption to the shift towards digital goods and services. Research shows that developed countries are less materialistic than they were thirty years ago, and are now less materialistic than consumers in emerging economies. The idea that we define ourselves through what we own appears to be very slowly eroding.

In James Wallman‘s book Stuffocation, he argues that we are moving from being materialists to experientialists. That is, we are seeking fulfillment through experience rather than stuff. Wallman sees many positives to this, that as experientialists we will be “happier, healthier people, leading more sustainable lives on a less damaged planet.”

This transition isn’t happening just because we’re waking up to the environmental and social impact of our consumption, but because we’re realising what psychologists have known all along: experiences make us happier than possessions. There are a number of reasons why, but here are four to get started:

  1. If we buy something that turns out to be shoddy or just a bad idea, the physical object remains as a permanent and tangible expression of our poor choice. Experiences are very different, because we re-interpret them over time. We naturally remember the best things about our experiences and forget the bad bits. Even a terrible holiday turns into a funny anecdote. Experiences are often kinder to us with time.
  2. My neighbour has a new car, his third new model since we moved in. I don’t like cars and that’s just as well, because if I did, every time I looked out the front window I’d be reminded that ours is inferior. But if I spend a sunny afternoon around the BBQ, and my neighbour spends it on a round of golf, which is better? Material things are easily compared, and that makes us more insecure about what we have. Experiences can’t be compared in the same way, so we feel more confident in them.
  3. We carry our experiences with us. Possessions come and go, but our experiences become part of who we are, part of our story. As part of our identity, they’re much more precious to us than material objects. To lose one’s memories is to lose a part of oneself.
  4. Experiences bring us together. We know that good relationships are one of the most important aspects of our wellbeing, and shared experiences build closer friendships and make us feel like we belong. Possessions, on the other hand, can often divide and exclude. Experiences don’t divide as acutely into ‘haves and have-nots’ the way ownership can.

None of this means that material goods are unimportant or that they can’t be a source of satisfaction. And of course, people can be selfish or competitive about their experiences. But as James Wallman writes, “if more people put experiences before possessions, if more preferred doing rather than having, we would have less clutter, less stress, and a happier society.”

1 comment

  1. Experiences are just another form of consumption and often have the same status driven motives.

    Previously if you wanted to show your success you had to wave a larger thing since it was harder to show off with experiences. Now with ubiquitous cameras and social media you can easily share them. The pictures stay somewhere tangible.

    So we are the same status seeking people we have always been. How long before we get an Oxfam report on experience inequality?

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