Experience Over Matter: The Science Of Happiness

You just received a bonus and you want to reward yourself for all your hard work — What is the usual thought that comes to mind when considering what to spend your money on? Depending on the type of person you are, it could be eating at that fancy new restaurant you’ve always wanted to try. It could be going on a road trip or vacation. For the majority of people – myself included – however, it is material ownership.

I just love reading about and shopping for stuff, especially tech-related items. Whenever I have some spare budget left over, I usually stumble to Amazon, Lazada, E-bay and other related online shops and just browse for small and cheap trinkets and gadgets in hopes of discovering a hidden gem underneath all that e-rubble.

From audio stuff to apps to accessories, there is something fun about the whole process of exploration, research and eventual ownership of things that really get to me. After all the excitement over my new toy, comes the inevitable decline towards complacency. That toy I bought isn’t looking so shiny and new anymore. It has become part of my everyday life and just blends into the background. Its utility remains the same but the excitement over it has faded.

I find myself repeating this endless cycle over and over again, looking for the next cool toy, throughout the years and although this habit has mellowed out a little, it is still with me to this day.


“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

Turns out, a study about this has been done and has recently reached its conclusion. The 20-year old study conducted by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University concluded with a simple and straightforward answer: Don’t spend your money on material things. According to the study, happiness acquired through material ownership dulls rapidly over time and this is due to three reasons:

  • Familiarity. Yesterday’s shiny and new become today’s dull and boring.
  • The Next Best Thing — Once the allure fades, we move on in search of the next thing that will rouse our excitement.
  • Comparisons Breed Envy — Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness who did a talk at TED put it best: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
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“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Gilovich said. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”


Another conclusion the study made is that ‘experiences’ bring forth longer lasting happiness as compared to material things. Experiences fades quickly much like our interest on material things but its effect on our happiness lasts longer and the reason for that is:

We Become What We Live — “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” said Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

No Two Experiences Are The Same — We tend to put deeper thought in decisions that will affect our lives. Given the same circumstances and the same choices, no two individuals will think exactly alike. Their own unique personality and values come into play which makes the whole experience difficult to gauge and assess.

Consistency Throughout The Whole Experience — The study also looked at the effects of anticipation and observed that it causes excitement for a new experience while it had the opposite on anticipation for material things and caused impatience instead. From start to finish, the anticipation we feel for new experiences are consistent.

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Constant Reminder Versus A Fleeting One — Not all purchases we make are planned and/or fulfill a certain need or purpose. We sometimes buy on impulse and experience what’s called as Buyer’s Remorse which as the term implies, is regret for the thing that we purchased and is given an constant physical reminder of it everyday as opposed to experiences that are fleeting, which makes us cherish them the more time that passes, especially good ones.

Experience are short compared to material things but the emotions they incite within us stays with us the rest of our lives so the next time you want to spend that money on a new toy, I leave you with this:


“Don’t buy happiness, live it.”

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