Experiences Trump Trinkets for Lasting Happiness

Most of us probably are already clear about the fact that brand new trinkets and gadgets may tickle us for a while but they don't contribute much to a real, enduring sense of happiness.

It's perfectly fine to spend hard-earned money on fun extras that are strictly for enjoyment, but I suspect that we have all been there: that initial sense of delight and elation we feel upon acquiring that awesome new toy du jour soon wears off. Psychologists at Cornell University are coming closer to explaining why that is, as well as to shedding a little light on those elective purchases we can make that actually do contribute to a real sense of happiness.

As George Lowery writes for PhysOrg, the key matter that can tip the balance between something whose luster soon fades or which will support real and lingering happiness is how easy or difficult it is to compare 'mine' with 'yours.'

For example, the PhysOrg article uses the purchase of a new flat-screen TV. It's larger and provides a better picture than your previous set, and at the outset you're happy with your purchase. All it takes however is to encounter a friend whose new rig is even bigger and more advanced than yours, or who got the the same set at a better deal, and the happy bubble bursts. Things that can be measured and compared are necessarily set up for eventually being found lacking in the comparison.

Experiences, however, are uniquely our own. We can share with others various recounts and recollections of our experiences, whether an invigorating walk in the woods or a recent much-needed vacation, but we can't objectively compare our experiences with those of others. They are are own, and according to Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, it's in the realm of experience where we are better off pursuing things to help support our sense of happiness.

PhysOrg reports that Gilovich has been working for several years on various studies that point to the consistent conclusion that experiences are better than things at making us happy, but that the separation between things that can and cannot be compared with others is the recent contribution to offering an explanation. This most recent study currently appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Going further and thinking big, Gilovich offers for PhysOrg an interpretation of his findings that may have beneficial, real-world community-scale implications:

"Our results suggest that if people get more enduring happiness from their experiences than their possessions, at a policy level, we might want to make available the resources that enable people to have experiences. You can't go hiking if there are no trails. And if those are the kinds of things that give people more enduring enjoyment, we need to make sure we're creating the kinds of communities that have parks, trails and so on that promote experiences that produce real enjoyment."

Story by David Bois, originally published April 2010 by Tonic


Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.


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