Experience is a jewel, and it had need be so, for it is often purchased at an infinite rate.
-William Shakespeare

Material Things
In the midst of the holiday season, we often, too easily get caught up in the frenzy of gift-buying, and finding the hottest item, whether it be a Snow Glow Elsa doll from “Frozen”, the latest Star Wars Legos, or perhaps Beats headphones or a GoPro camera. In our materialistic and capitalistic society, we are led to believe that more money and more material items can make us happy. We desire the newest and latest gadget, or a bigger and better house, or a fancier and faster car. Unfortunately, the economic principles of “depreciation” indicate that items generally will lose their value over time, and the “law of diminishing marginal utility” tells us that the amount of satisfaction that we gain from the item will decrease as we buy more.

Value of Experience 
Our natural tendency is to associate economic value with material possessions. My house is worth this much, my friend’s house is worth that much. I have only two cars, my neighbor has five. As social beings, we have a tendency to want to compare ourselves with others.

However, researchers have found that life experiences, rather than material things, can bring on more lasting enjoyment and happiness. A study reported in Psychological Science asked participants to spend money on a material item and on an experiential purchase. The findings indicated that the participants reported greater happiness with the life experience and that the life experience was also a better value than the material item.

One reason for this could be that one can’t compare experiential purchases, one’s vacation at a lake house can’t easily compare to another’s vacation on a lake house; whereas, there is a concrete monetary value placed on having a $20 watch versus a $2,000 watch. One can’t easily place a concrete value on an experience. Even if we vacationed at the exact same lake house, the experiences for each person are unique. We each have our own subjective perception on what makes the experience meaningful to us. One person taking a dance class could enjoy the experience because they are taking the class with friends and it is time spent together, versus another person finds the dance class meaningful because they are learning steps for their first dance on their wedding day, or another person is taking the class because of their desire to exercise more and be more social.

The difference between our money spent on “doing” versus spent on “having” is that experiential purchases are more strongly associated with our identity as well as in social connection with others. The experiences can also give us a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, such as learning a new language or completing a 5K.

Shared Experience – Ways of Connection 
As social beings, we also have a natural desire to share in a connection with others. Through a shared experience, we share in the moments, feelings, and meaning of that experience, creating a collective memory of that experience. That roadtrip to the national park, where you shared in watching the sunset over the mountains, or stumbling upon the best breakfast at the most unassuming roadside diner, or even the moments like getting lost together on the hiking trail.

The experience in of itself can be meaningful. The time spent together and sharing in the experience can enhance a relationship. Volunteering with strangers for Habitat for Humanity, you share in the larger purpose of creating something together, and working collaboratively on a joint mission. You may walk away from the experience having gotten to know someone better through working and spending time together. You also have a shared connection, that through the collective effort with others, you were able to do something greater than yourselves.

Even in the recounting of our experiences, it is our way of wanting to share in connection with others. You find someone that also has been snorkeling, the tendency is to want to find a shared connection, discussing if you have snorkeled the same sites, or if not, sharing about the places you’ve been while hearing about new places they have been. Unlike with material possessions, there is less of a sense of competition, but more likely the excitement to have a common interest with someone, to recount memories and finding similarities and differences of snorkeling the same site, and the eagerness to hear about a new place to explore.

Creating Memories 
Lastly, our experiences are invaluable because they create lasting memories that stay with us, versus material items that can more easily be lost, donated away, forgotten about, or thrown out. The experiences we have each create a unique memory, and our memories can elicit a range of emotions.

We can easily remember the first time we tried something new. You may have been skiing for 30 years, but you can remember the first time learning to ski from a parent. Or perhaps the memories of going skiing on a family trip to Colorado, and the feelings of going down a new mountain. Even when an experience doesn’t go according to plan, we often still reflect on it as an amusing memory that can elicit fond emotions. Like the time you tried to learn your spouse’s favorite meal to surprise them, but accidentally burned everything, so you ended up trying out a new restaurant instead. It is now one of your favorite restaurants, and every time you go to this restaurant, you both chuckle thinking about that special memory.

Our experiences are invaluable. Our experiences are intertwined with our identity and social connection, creating meaningful memories, and give us value. Therefore, this holiday season, let us focus more on, and savor in, the experience/our experiences.

Kumar, A., Killingsworth, M.A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory consumption of experiential and material purchases. Psychological Science.