Jonah Lehrer writes:

[The] virtue of experiences is that, while material things get diminished over time (we habituate to the pleasure, and then have to deal with the inevitable repairs), pleasant memories tend to become more pleasant. We forget about the delayed flights and jet lag but remember the lush rainforest hike, or the fancy meal in Paris. The vacation might be long gone but it’s still making us happy.

ED Kain isn’t convinced:

I know some people who continually spend money going out to eat, yet never bother to purchase new appliances. Sometimes spending money creating great memories can make it that much more difficult for you to save up for a new car or a down-payment on a house. I’d say that when buying memories becomes more like buying things the two become basically indistinguishable. Beyond that, most people can’t afford really lavish trips, so the same problem of comparison let-down can occur with memories too.

“Going out to eat” is, for the sake of this discussion, an example of spending money on experiences and memories rather than “things”.

A part of me wants to dismiss the “things vs. experiences” discussion as anti-materialist snobbery. Basically a bunch of rich people that want to be able to justify their trips to Tuscany while being able to condemn another guy for buying a 4×4. But they’ve got some research to back up the notion that things don’t make us happy for as long as we expect. I do think, though, that it’s overly-simplistic to suggest that one is inherently better than the other.

For one thing, the marginal utility on each depreciates at a relatively rapid clip past a certain point. Clancy and I spent a lot of money on “experiences” when we went out to eat on a regular basis in Estacado and Deseret. The result? Larger waistlines and thinner bank accounts. Memories? Sure. We do long for some of the restaurants that Soundview seems to conspicuously lack. But since moving out here, going out to eat is an irregular occurrence and because of that is much more significant.

To take a more expensive example, my parents love to go on cruises. They go on two or three a year these days. The last cruise I went on was about a decade ago. I’d like to go on another one at some point. When we do, I expect that it we will get a lot more mileage out of it than my parents do from any similar venture. This despite the fact that they (or Mom, mostly) enjoy cruises on the whole more than I do.

In other words, as ED is sort of getting at, there reaches a point where experiences become a thing. Once it becomes a part of your regular lifestyle, the spending of money on it sort of becomes like renting a car on a regular basis instead of just buying one. You may be renting different cars on different occasions and enjoying the variety a little more than someone stuck with the same car for ten years, but in the end if you reach a financial hiccup and have to go without its absence becomes no less real than if you own a car and it breaks down. It’s less an experience and more an obligation. Each successive new car becomes less special. Some day I would love to rent a muscle car just for the heck of it. But if I viewed doing so as buying a memory and wanted to do it frequently, it’d become more a thing or not.

Now, when it comes to buying experiences and memories, one way you can compensate this is by doing different things and going to different places. For instance, instead of going on a cruise to the Caribbean you go to the Mediterranean or Alaska. Instead of going on a cruise you go rock-climbing. Of course, on the material side of things, you can compensate by buying different things as well. Instead of getting that new computer when your old is good enough, you can get a portable MP3 player.

I will be the first to admit that a lot of the stuff I buy doesn’t buy me happiness. But there have definitely been some things – new and different things – that have enriched my life in significant ways. My first Pocket PC made a border-line unbearable job much more bearable and made chores like waiting in line or going shopping. It was definitely worth eating out ten times or so. It was even worth a flight home to visit the folks.

Saying that there should be a balance is all true and good but some will still suggest that people don’t have this balance and instead veer way too much to the “stuff” side. I think that this is true in some cases, but as EDK points out, we spend a lot on otherwise, too. Until we moved here, I think we went far too much on the spending-on-experiences (or ethereal convenience) and not enough on stuff. Or else, we spent too much on both.

I can certainly agree with the notion that there is more to life than stuff. And it’s true that experiences are one of those things that that is more important than stuff. And some people don’t spend enough on experiences. But others don’t. And I would be wary about broad proclamations about how people should make these decisions.

Category: Coffeehouse

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One Response to Enrichment, Experiences, & Stuff

  1. Kirk says:

    I haven’t done it in awhile, but I used to go bike-riding out on the keys here. It’s a really nice ride, with beaches and such to look at.

    Once, traffic was congested on the causeway coming back. As I was on a bike, and the bike lane was clear, I was keeping up with the traffic, passing and re-passing a bunch of people on Harleys.

    My garage-sale bike cost me $40. Those Harleys cost anywhere from $15k to $18k. But we both got pretty much the same memories that day. So, memories don’t have to be expensive.

    As for other cheap diversions, when I was a kid we had a dog. Somebody (usually, me) had to clean up after it. We had a garden, so it made sense to just bury the poop rather than throw it out. The only thing was the garden was quite a walk, our yard being large.

    Anyway, my father being a football coach, he had access to a stopwatch. My two brothers and I used to race, to see how fast we could carry the dog-poop to the garden, bury it, and get back.

    My brother’s wife now thinks our family is insane.

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