According to a Cornell paper entitled “To do or to have: That is the question“, the things you own don’t make you as happy as the things you do. The authors provide three primary explanations:
- No matter how much we like a possession when we acquire it, we eventually get used to material things which dampen their lure. By contrast, memorable experiences stay fresh or even grow over time. (within three months)
- Experiences usually involve other people and the shared memory foster or strengthen relationships. Possessions are often an isolated happiness.
- It’s socially acceptable to discuss experiences with others while people who brag about their possessions are typically considered less likeable.
In addition, it’s difficult to compare your experiences with those of others while comparing possessions is fairly straightforward. Comparisons can provoke feelings of “keeping up with the Joneses”.
Professor Ryan Howell from San Francisco State University extends this research by showing that people who wrote about their experiences show a higher satisfaction after the experience had passed. Proof that blogging about your life is good for you!
Howell’s work also suggests a halo effect; people that interact with study participants who chose experiences were happier than people who interact with those who chose to buy something. This increased happiness occurred regardless of whether they were directly involved in the experience.
I’m not a scientist but I wonder about the applicability of these studies. They seem predicated on the assumption that an event is either a purchase or an experience. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. For example, I purchased a particular cast-iron pot so that I could experience cooking with it and having it improve with age.
The same can be said for my convertible. While it’s true that I’m now used to the idea of a car without a top, I will never forget the memory of my first trip to the beach in it.
To do or to have? Maybe that isn’t an answerable question.