Things Vs Experiences, Take Two

Experiences over things, right? We’ve had this conversation frequently and come to the same conclusion: things become stuff, and stuff we eventually Konmari out of our lives, whereas experiences become memories. Except now there’s a new wrinkle, courtesy of the Atlantic: some kinds of things make you just as happy as experiences. Specifically, “experiential goods.”

Begin by examining why experiences provide more happiness than material consumption. What is it about experiences? It’s not the fact of having an experience per se but that experiences can “satisf[y] the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” Talking to friends, mastering a skill, expressing oneself through art or writing—all of these provide a measure of fulfillment that merely owning a thing cannot.

Experiential goods fit in under this framework because they likewise can satisfy those same psychological needs. A musical instrument, for example, makes possible a sort of human happiness hat trick: Finely tune your skills, get the happiness of mastery (competence); play your heart out, get the happiness of self-expression (autonomy); jam with friends, get the happiness of connecting with others (relatedness).

Go ahead and buy that guitar, then, or those roller blades, or that SLR camera — but only if you’re going to commit to getting good. That’s the trick: you have to build proficiency at using your new thing in order to develop the “competence” and other traits you’ll find so emotionally satisfying. If you buy a high-end tennis racket on a whim, though, and don’t devote yourself to practicing, it will end up gathering dust in a closet and you won’t end up any happier.

This is a “know thyself” sort of situation. Impulse buyers by this logic seem less likely to enjoy their purchases over the long run, and/or people who already have closets full of hobby equipment they’ve tried and given up on. If, however, you choose your pastimes carefully and know that you’ll prioritize them, then sure, getting a banjo might be just as rewarding as getting tickets to hear Steve Martin and his bluegrass band.

If you’re honestly not sure which kind of person you are, ask your parents. “Oh my god,” your mom might say. “Do you remember your disastrous thing for the drums? You demanded a full set and then we finally got them for you and you never touched them? And that chemistry kit that how howled for and then weeks later completely ignored? And your brief, expensive, exhausting obsession with hockey? Oh yes, and …”

We are none of us, after all, that different from how we used to be.

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