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Why Experiences

Your brain on experiences: How to drive employee well-being by focusing on fulfillment

I facetimed my friend Ashley the other day.  

At one point in the conversation, we started reminiscing about our college years. We laughed about the time that I napped through a fire drill. We smiled remembering the day we repainted the walls of our first apartment together—and got teary-eyed reflecting on the day we moved out. 

After we hung up, I wondered: it’s been close to a decade since we had those experiences. How can they, after so much time has passed, live this clearly in our memories? Elicit such powerful emotions? Still make me feel deeply bonded to my friend? 

Understanding the answers to these questions has significant implications. It can unlock new ways of thinking about how to create a happier, more meaningful life—not just for ourselves, but also for  our friends, families, community members, and employees. 

In this article, we unravel why experiences impact us so deeply and how individuals, People leaders, and organizations can harness the power of experiences to increase fulfillment and well-being. 

With the help of Dr. Tom Gilovich and Dr. Amit Kumar, two of the leading experts on the question of “why experiences?”, we explore: 

  • The benefits of choosing experiences over material things, 
  • What happens in our brains before, during, and after experiences, and
  • How employers can use experiences to improve employee well-being

What we learned has the potential to transform the employer-employee relationship.

The psychology of why experiences make us happier. 

Most of us are intuitively aware that experiences make us happier than material things. We’ve seen the countless headlines that direct us to “buy experiences, not things.”  But why do they make us happier? 

It could be because of the dopamine rush we get when we experience something new. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Experiences have side effects that linger beyond a momentary brain high and can actually improve our well-being.

We know this thanks to the research of psychologists including Dr. Gilovich and Dr. Kumar. In their 2014 paper, “A wonderful life: experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness”, they review existing literature and conclude that there are three main reasons why experiences tend to make us happier than material goods.

1. Experiences enhance social relations.

Research has long shown that humans are deeply social creatures who rely on relationships to find meaning and happiness in their lives. That’s why, when you look at the most consistently happy people, the common theme is strong social relationships.

Well, as it turns out, experiential purchases are a fantastic way to enhance our social relations—for a few reasons: 

Experiences are people-focused.

Experiences naturally lend themselves to social connections because they tend to involve other people. We go camping with our kids, attend concerts with our friends, enjoy new dining experiences with our partner. This type of quality time, unsurprisingly, brings us closer to the people we share those experiences with.

A Blueboard experiential reward recipient enjoys taking family photos with a drone.

Experiences create connections.

Even when your experiences don’t involve other people, they have the potential to create connections. “Even when you [aren’t having experiences with other people], you feel connected to the people who share those experiences. If we both have the same hobby or we vacation in the same place, we're going to feel closer to each other than if we have the same iPhone or electric car,” explains Dr. Gilovich. 

Experiences have greater “story value.”

We’re also more likely to tell stories of our experiences than we are of material possessions. A study by Dr. Kumar and Dr. Gilovich supports this theory. When asked how much they’ve talked about their most significant material and experiential purchases, participants reported talking about their experiences significantly more often.

2. Experiences help shape a person’s identity.

Most of us are attached to our possessions to a certain extent, sure. But they aren’t as central to our identity as our experiences. If you’re not convinced, try this thought experiment: imagine writing your biography—what would the bulk of the content focus on? 

Probably memories about your favorite ice cream shop as a kid, or that time you met Prince at a live show. You’re probably not dedicating chapters to that new pair of shoes.

“Arguably, who we are is the sum total of our experiences, the life that we’ve lived.” – Dr. Tom Gilovich

“We identify with our possessions, certainly, and they’re part of us too—but not nearly to the same degree as our experiences,” says Dr. Gilovich. “Arguably, who we are is the sum total of our experiences, the life that we’ve lived. So when we're spending money on that, we’re building up the self.”

3. Experiences evoke fewer comparisons.

Most of us have scrolled through Instagram and felt a twinge of envy seeing our friend’s new house or a former classmate’s perfect outfit. This type of social comparison can be really bad for our well-being.

Research shows that individuals with greater social comparison orientation derived from low self-esteem have worse mental health because they’re more likely to hurt themselves psychologically.

This is another area where experiences are superior to stuff. According to Dr. Kumar, social comparisons are less likely to happen with experiences than material possessions. 

Blueboard experiential reward recipient, Lynda H., gets out of her comfort zone and enjoys the view.

“It can be bothersome to find out that someone has  a nicer TV than you do or their wardrobe is better than yours. It can also be annoying to find out that someone who has the same electronic good that you have paid less for it than you did. These kinds of comparisons can be somewhat destructive for well-being. But it turns out that those kinds of comparisons are actually less common for experiences.”

What happens in our brains before, during, and after experiences. 

We might be happier in the moment when we choose experiences over material things…but does it last? Experiences are ephemeral. Fleeting. Lasting only a few hours or days. So it’s natural to assume the effects will be the same. 

But research says the opposite. In fact, according to another paper by Dr. Kumar and Dr. Gilovich: “people are happier with experiential purchases over material ones irrespective of when you measure happiness: before, during or after consumption.” But why?

Before experiences…

Waiting doesn’t always feel good. It can manifest as anxiety, impatience, or frustration. But when we’re counting down the days to our first-ever trip to Vietnam or a long-awaited reunion with friends, the experience of waiting changes. 

Dr. Kumar and Dr. Gilovich reviewed multiple studies that measured the quality of anticipation before different types of purchases. All research points to the fact that the value people derive from anticipation tends to be greater for experiential than for material purchases.

“What we found is that during this anticipatory period, the waiting tends to be more pleasurable, more exciting. And the feelings are less tinged with these feelings of impatience. We're delightfully looking forward to these experiences,” explains Dr. Kumar.

During experiences…

We know, now, that experiences boost our happiness and sense of well-being. But there’s also an interesting link between novel experiences and our perception of time. According to neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, time passes by more slowly when we have novel experiences—making our lives feel longer (and who doesn’t want that?)

Here’s why: in new situations—whether they’re positive or negative—the amygdala kicks into high gear. When this happens, your brain changes the way it creates memories, laying them down in a way that makes them "stickier” and generating a higher density of data. Upon replay, this makes the event appear to last longer.

This phenomenon explains why time seems to speed up as you age, and why it passes by slowly when you’re a child—when almost every experience is novel and exciting.

After experiences…

We also know that experiences linger in our memories for months, years, after they’ve ended. Again, the sociality of experiences is part of what makes them stick. But there’s another explanation, which is that novelty tends to boost memory retention.

Blueboard experiential reward recipient, Andrew H., shares his helicopter experience on Instagram.

In an experiment, researchers trained mice to find a hidden piece of food within a small arena. After the training period, the mice remembered the location of the food after one hour, but not after 24 hours. To test whether a novel experience could affect the animals’ memories, they placed a box with an unfamiliar floor material in the arena 30 minutes after the training period.

The outcome? Mice that experienced the unexpected event were able to recollect the food’s location 24 hours later. In other words, new experiences could potentially help us create longer-lasting memories.

Experiences and employee well-being: A perfect pairing 

The research around experiences is compelling. Even so, it can be difficult for individuals to make space for experiences in the routine of day-to-day life. And therein lies a huge opportunity for people-first employers.

Right now, employees are exhausted. HR leaders are desperately trying to improve employee well-being—while struggling to manage burnout themselves. It’s clear that organizations need an accessible, impactful way to boost well-being. 

While there haven’t been any studies done on the direct correlation between experiences and employee well-being, Dr. Kumar believes that the many benefits that come from having experiences—like strengthened social connections, lasting memories, and meaningful identity shaping—could translate into greater employee well-being and fulfillment.

“If our experiments suggest that it's a good idea for individuals to shift some of their personal investments away from material consumption and towards experiential consumption, and we know they're likely to be happier as a result, then it could be similarly wise for organizations to help people do this.”

Based on the research, here are a few ways your organization can improve employee well-being by focusing on experiences.

Use experiences to facilitate social connections at work. 

Thanks to the research of social psychologists,  we’re well aware that human connection is key to well-being. But there’s a problem—a Connection Gap—that’s happening in the workplace.

In 2021, Blueboard surveyed nearly 400 HR professionals and over 500 individual employees to understand the state of connection in workplaces. We found that—while the majority of HR professionals and employees believe connection at work is critical—only 31% of organizations say they’ve addressed connection challenges. And just 38% of employees say their company is effective at enabling them to build authentic relationships with coworkers and managers.

Our ability to connect with others has been further diminished by the pandemic.

“Walking somewhere to meet a friend for coffee, that was a big source of experience [for employees], and that was just taken away. And it's part of the pain that was experienced, the costs that were born, during this period. By all accounts, everyone's just exhausted with this, and they want to get back to real life,” says Dr. Gilovich.

Despite challenging circumstances, companies can use experiences to facilitate more social connections in the workplace.  

  • Invest in hybrid events. Employers need to intentionally carve out the space and time for employees to connect with each other. A great way to do this is by hosting in-person and virtual company-wide events. Just take the proper pandemic safety precautions and be mindful of Zoom fatigue.
  • Encourage moments away from work.  We've seen that, especially for remote workers, it can be very difficult to separate work from life, to shut down and walk away. This has led to never-before-seen levels of burnout. Help your people break through this mindset by creating a culture that encourages time away from work. Ask managers to grab virtual coffees with a direct report or have the CEO share a photo of taking a midday walk with their kids. Lead by example.
  • Establish interest groups. Give your employees a way to bond over common interests. Start a company book club. Create a Slack channel for pet enthusiasts. Form an employee resource group to discuss current events. There are tons of ways to encourage social connection within the workplace.
  • Recognize and reward employees with experiences. This is why Blueboard exists: to give organizations the tools to reward their people with experiences that improve employees' lives. We dive deeper into this in the next section.

Recognize and reward employees with experiences.

One of the best ways to help your employees reap the benefits of experiences is to give them experiences directly through a recognition and rewards program. While traditional recognition programs rely heavily on cash bonuses, there’s a strong case for non-cash rewards

Blueboard experiential reward recipient, Abdiel M., shares his surf experience with a loved one.

Dr. Kumar also points out that employees lead busy lives. After spending eight hours at work, they go home, take care of their family, have dinner, then the day is over. Rinse and repeat. With this type of schedule, many people find it challenging to find time to seek out new experiences. 

But by offering experiential rewards as part of a recognition program, employers can make life-enriching experiences more accessible to their workforce. And, as a result, they can have a direct impact on the holistic well-being of their employees—not just within the "walls'' of the workplace.

“People have to constantly make trade-offs and choices in their lives. But if organizations can make it easier for people to partake in this experiential consumption, that means they're more likely to engage in those experiences and that's then likely to promote well-being.” – Dr. Amit Kumar

“If you make something easier for people to do, they're much more likely to do it,” explains Dr. Kumar. “People have to constantly make trade-offs and choices in their lives. But if organizations can make it easier for people to partake in this experiential consumption, that means they're more likely to engage in those experiences and that's then likely to promote well-being.”

Encourage time away from work.

Even though companies can find ways to maximize experiences within the workplace, it’s important to recognize that meaningful experiences often happen outside of work. So one of the best ways to support employee well-being is to encourage your people to spend time away from the office. To accomplish this, companies have to:

  • Offer paid time off (PTO).  In addition to offering comprehensive PTO, take it a step further and encourage employees to fully unplug when they’re away. Remind them to delete Slack off their phones and create a no-contact policy for people who are on vacation.
  • Enforce a minimum number of days away. It’s common for organizations to offer unlimited PTO and see very low utilization rates. Nobody wants to be the person who uses the most vacation days and, without clear guidance, employees tend to be conservative about taking time off. That’s why it’s essential to enforce a minimum. Employees can use this time however they want—whether that’s having a staycation or crossing an item off their bucket list.
  • Provide paid sabbaticals for tenured employees. For employees who have been at your organization for several years, consider offering a fully-paid sabbatical. This gives your workers a chance to get away and experience new things—and also recognizes your most loyal employees for their contributions.

The verdict? Experiences make us better humans and more engaged employees 

If there’s one broad conclusion we can draw from all the existing research, it’s that experiences are good for us. They make us more social. Strengthen our sense of self. Make us less vulnerable to emotionally harmful comparisons. 

And, as Dr. Gilovich reminds us, you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to fly to Hawaii every month or eat at Michelin star restaurants to reap the benefits of experiences. 

“Happily, the kinds of experiences I'm talking about don't require a giant budget. They don't require elite travel. They don't require going very far. Just go outside and watch the sunset where you are. You don't need to go to California or Hawaii to do this. It's pretty spectacular from anywhere.”

For organizations looking to build workplaces people won’t want to leave, for organizations that view The Great Resignation as a great opportunity, for organizations that want to thrive and drive the future of work—empowering your employees to have experiences will be essential.

Want to learn more about how your organization can boost employee well-being through an experiential recognition and rewards program? Schedule some time to connect with our team.

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