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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.