The meaning of true happiness is a matter of opinion, and thus not easily measured. Our values, our goals, our relations with family – all vary from person to person, and striving for our happiness and the happiness of our loved ones is, to most of us, the key to “the good life”. No matter where we Expat Wanderers have traveled in the world, these values are exhibited to us time and time again through the people we meet.
Though true happiness can mean world travel for one person, and taking a vacation once a year and being happy in a job is perfect for another, there has always been the question in everyone’s lives many times as to how to maintain happiness. How can we be persistently happy and why does it feel so short-lived sometimes?
This can be a matter of opinion too, but for us, the second we started to break away from the materialistic mindset fed to us for our entire lives, we finally felt free. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that happiness is best achieved and maintained through experiences, not things. Travel is just one route to take, but a lasting experience for sure.
With this post, we hope to show that by keeping a materialistic mindset in check, we can all get closer to our dreams. It can help in saving money for your goals, and it strengthens our personal ties with those we love. Like travel, experiences are worth the investment of time and money over material things, and will help to maintain happiness – for a longer time, even years to come.
HUMAN VALUES MAKE THE SALES
As consumers in the commercial world we live in, our core values are always reflected in some way to get us to buy things. It has been proven to make the most sales. An ad for the Apple Watch once exhibited the slogan “the perfect partner for a healthy life” in reference to its health features. Upon it’s release, the Samsung Galaxy S4 boasted the catchphrase “Life companion – make your life richer, simpler, and more fun”.
These ads and countless others do appeal to our values almost brazenly, but we all know that buying these devices won’t magically grant our wishes for true happiness and success. Still, we tend to place value on these things as if they would, sometimes without even realizing it.
It’s not that we want to, we just feel we need to. There is a better alternative though, and one becoming increasingly important in a world full of ads and mindless spending: experiences, as an investment of our time and money, will give us a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness than purchasing material goods.
IT’S SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN – MATERIAL THINGS DON’T BRING US TRUE HAPPINESS.
Or at least more permanent happiness. In the psychology study Consumption and Well-Being in the Material World, by Miriam Tatzel, it was found that the purchase of a material good brings with it a heightened sense of regret in the long run.
On the other hand, experiences drive us to use our emotions and be more engaged and accepting of who we are and how we handle things. The memories gained in our experiences also last far longer than those we have in purchasing and owning a material good.
As Tatzel references, the smartphone in your hand and the happiness it brings you can’t really be compared on the same level as the joy you feel experiencing a tropical destination with your family, or backpacking on Ometepe Island Nicaragua.
The smartphone will become outdated in just a few years or sooner and a new one will take its place. Even though buying the plane ticket to a foreign destination requires spending, it was for something bigger – something to remember dearly for a lifetime as your own experience and your own story.
It is important to realize that material goods can and do provide us with happiness, just in a different and more short-lived sort of way. Consumers can become attached to their possessions in a more relationship-based manner and love their possessions, such as with a family heirloom, a home, or a car, which can all carry a level of wellbeing for the owner.
However, the ability to compare the benefits and features of tangible goods side by side before making a purchase generates not only a need to compare our choice with someone else’s, but leaves room for post-purchase regret and a feeling of inferiority to those who have better “things”.
In his 2014 article What Causes Materialism in America? The Geography of Consumption, Ph.D. Ryan Howell addresses the issue that “relative deprivation” (a feeling of inferiority to those around you) may actually be tied to economic climate and neighborhood standards, and is a product of the materialistic culture itself.
According to Howell, when purchasing material goods as a statement of social status, we aspire to a false image of financial success. We begin to purchase items not that we see as acceptable, but items that we perceive others to approve of socially.
The same goes with travel – luxury vacations are more of an image thing. You don’t really need a five-star hotel with more amenities than you have at home, it’s just nice to have and boast about later.
The result of this social comparison spending is buying things impulsively, and continuing to do so exponentially. This can mean more debt, more regret, and thus a lower sense of happiness.
Doesn’t material wealth bring some sort of positive reinforcement though?
Material possessions do carry a certain bit of happiness for us. Higher social status can be empowering, and mirror one’s well-being and even self-respect. The ability to be self-sufficient through wealth and material assets can be healthy, but it’s just more short-lived when basing happiness on the amount and quality of your possessions.
As editor Miriam Tatzel argues in her epilogue:
“To summarize the relationship between status and happiness, it seems that having status is good for one’s well-being (if not necessarily good for one’s character), but aspiring to status is a well-being negative.”
Basically, positive accomplishment can be exhibited through material wealth, but if we are accumulating material goods just to project an outer image of ourselves, we could easily lose sight of the values that truly maintain our sense of well-being.
WHY EXPERIENCES (LIKE TRAVEL) ARE BETTER FOR YOU AND YOUR LOVED ONES
As these studies suggest, it is the more internal rewards that should be sought by consumers, to receive a more permanent sense of happiness. Experience, as an investment, offers this lasting reward. If you’ve witnessed a place so beautiful that it made you thankful to be alive, you’re less likely to regret the purchase of the plane ticket to get there.
It is important to remember that experiences can in fact be negative ones, but we still share a strong memory and a strong connection with that experience and with those involved.
There is always something to be learned in any situation, and even the tougher situations can give us a lasting sense of self-worth and accomplishment of having made it through hard times.
More meaningful interactions with others is a powerful plus to having more experiences than things. It is our close interaction with other people while sharing experiences that makes the difference, whether they be loved ones or even a fellow traveler you meet on the road.
Memories and bonds with our loved ones will last much longer than say, having a connection with someone because you have the same high-tech television set. Basically, material possessions tend to fade in our memories and personal attachment over time, while our experiences with others do not.
It doesn’t stop when the trip is over – experiences can be remembered forever
We humans tend to have experiences in our lives that can be passed down for generations and can even provide a legacy. Like a grandparents’ love story of how they met in Europe in the 1930’s, or how a distant relative was one of the first to climb Mount Everest, these experiences are remembered. Not just by those involved, but also by their loved ones for years to come.
On the contrary, the developments of new generation technology and ever-changing fashion trends drives us to an “out with the old, in with the new” approach to our consumption. Material goods have a shelf-life, and for far less time than a lasting memory does.
Travel has provided Scott and I with stories and memories that our family will remember for decades. Traveling has given us a long-lasting supply of experiences to look back on, and the feelings we felt during these travel experiences never seem to fade. Some will always remain hilarious to us, and others just flat out life-changing. Regardless, we feel happiness again whenever we look back on them.
BUT YOU STILL NEED THINGS, AND CAN’T BE ENTIRELY WITHOUT POSSESSIONS.
Omitting materialism entirely is just about impossible these days. Some degree of material wealth is absolutely necessary, even to have some experiences. You cannot safely trek the Himalayas without the proper gear, and you can’t exactly attend a black-tie affair without the proper outfit (unless of course, you wanted to cause a ruckus).
Just about all occupations require material goods and technology to operate efficiently, and much of the world’s economies depend on consumerism and sales.
But on a more personal level as a consumer, the idea that less is more – that is, purchasing only what you need will pave the way for less material baggage and thus increased contentment. This will help in the pursuit of lasting, true happiness.
Taking small steps towards increased experiences will make big a difference
To better avoid negative effects on us in this material world, and to optimize contentment, investments of our time and money should be conscious decisions. After all, the value of currency is not in the paper it is printed on, but in what it can be exchanged for.
Purchasing an experience – like enrolling in a community education course to gain a new skill, or taking a trip out of town for a weekend of exploring – yields much greater rewards and an even greater return on your dollar, because those memories and skills will last.
Investing in more experiences does not necessarily mean purchasing ones of monetary value either. Some experiences cost nothing, but present high rewards.
Taking afternoon walks along the riverbank with your family and friends, walking the dog on a local hiking trail at sunset, or simply having a friendly conversation with a neighbor are all examples of little-to-no-cost experiences, yet the positive effects of these are prominent.
Experiencing more can also help us to be healthier in our lives. To be active in your experiences and goals, and to be open to the possibility of getting outdoors, can create a greater possibility of vitality and healthy habits (such as, taking those regular walks with the dog).
“Our necessities are few, but our wants are endless.” – George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics
Experience is a perpetual reflection of who we are as people. It is the experiences, not the possessions, which define our self-development and life story. So, sell some of that stuff and take a vacation, or make a conscious effort to experience something instead of purchasing that new thing.
While pursuing experiences and the goals we set for ourselves, we exhibit strong self-determination that not only helps to strengthen our bonds with our friends and family, but turns our focus inward to ourselves.
While in the pursuit of our intrinsic goals and values, we no longer pursue extrinsic ones of social and societal values that may or may not be our own.
Even through small changes, we can invest ourselves in more experiences and begin to reap the benefits of new lessons learned and strong interpersonal relationships. We can get closer to our own ideas of what true happiness feels like.
Our need to be happy and live a wonderful life is perpetual. At the least, what most of us wish for is what is best for ourselves, and best for those we care about. By exhibiting a more experiential lifestyle, we have the opportunity to heighten our happiness to its greatest potential. Our relationships become stronger, as does our contentment. Through experiences, not things, we can all live a more full and exciting life.
What experience will you pursue next? Let us know below!