Why experiences beat material gifts every time

Happiness may not be for sale but spending money on experiences seems to have a knock-on effect on our wellbeing

If happiness was for sale, we imagine it would be quite an expensive commodity. But they say how we spend our money can determine our level of happiness and influence our wellbeing. Spending our money on items which are often fleeting and lost in the backroom filing cabinet of our minds, have little effect on our long-term happiness goals. A takeaway coffee, while momentarily deliriously pleasurable, will be forgotten until the next thing we buy to fill that void.

We often assume buying an item would bring much more satisfaction because of its durable, long-lasting nature. However, it has been determined by behavioural scientists that items often only afford us temporary joy until that spark most certainly wanes.

Many of us have taken to making memories, building traditions and spending our money on experiences. We’re finding the worth of these experiences to be more valuable and notably, longer lasting. Ultimately, it seems we derive more happiness from experiences such as attending concerts and festivals (back when this was something you could actually do), family days out, exploring the mountains and lakes and travelling overseas. The year 2020 has a lot to answer for – taking many of these experiences away, for now.

Esther Lawson de Ocampo, a business strategist with IPA Group, has long bought in to the idea of celebrating with experiences over items. With two young sons, herself and her partner are more focused in bringing experiences home rather than gifts. "When it comes to birthdays, we give them the choice of what they would like," she says, "either a gift or an experience. The older they're getting, the more they're asking for experiences. We will all enjoy watching Euro 2020 (in 2021) together. Other experiences have included go-karting, laser tag and nerf wars."

Creating memories and traditions are often considered much more important for our kids. Chances are the memory of a family experience will last much longer than a toy which may lose its appeal or break within a week. A family tradition in the de Ocampo household is a take on the traditional Advent calendar. “In the run up to Christmas, we have a family Advent calendar where we do activities together, such as wrapping up warm and going for a walk, making paper snowflakes, watching Christmas movies instead of having a chocolate calendar.”

Our possessions, the faux leather corner suite, the vinyl collection, the Swarovski drop earrings, don’t define us. While it is very nice to own such possessions, their validity and connection to our personalities and stories are limited. They don’t define our passions or connect us to our friends or family. Experiences on the other hand, most certainly do as we often experience life events together.

Creating memories

For Martina Perry, co-founder of The Pepper Hustle Method, a programme enabling women to become more body positive, experiences are where happiness is at. "My husband and I have always enjoyed and shared experiences rather than things," she says. "Our experiences are part of us and our relationship, much more than any material thing ever will be. Material things are disposal, our experiences are not, and they make us who we are. We would rather drive cars that are several years old because we love to travel, experience our surroundings (both home and away), eat nice food, try new things and step outside our comfort zones."

There is an argument that experiences are often fleeting and may not hold the same value. But those moments are memorable amidst everything else which may be happening in our lives at that time. As parents, we are given the opportunity to instil this value of experiences over things in our children also. “For us a life well lived is not about how much money we have or how many things we have but the freedom to spend our time doing the things we want to do together and creating memories for our family,” says Perry. “We try to instil these values in our kids. They still get toys, but we also buy them experiences over plastic. Most gifts are experiences. For example, a cooking lesson, a horse-riding experience, a shopping trip with mum or a kayak/picnic with dad. Even during this year’s difficult times, we managed to dress up, “go out to dinner” in our home for our birthday girl. It was a beautiful, fun filled experience in a time of outward chaos.”

‘I have always valued experiences’

Michelle McLoughlin is a veteran when it comes to spending her money on experiences rather than commodities. She has explored both Ireland and the world with these events embedding themselves into her personality and relationships with shared encounters. "Growing up my parents brought us on lots of picnics and days away, so I have always valued experiences," she says. "Birthdays and special occasions are marked by concerts, theatre and special events or trips away in Ireland. Experiences create wonderful memories that last far longer than any physical gifts and that is why I will always choose an event or a holiday."

Amongst her visits abroad, McLoughlin took a camping holiday in southern Africa and spent one Christmas Day on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Despite their van breaking down, it was a Christmas to remember, far removed from the ordinary materialism back home. "Seeing sunrise from a hot air balloon over the Zambesi River and the Victoria Falls and canoeing on the Yellow River in Namibia were the highlights, not to mention that one night a herd of elephants came through the camp site and we all survived even if our tents got damaged."

As a result of her passion for travel, enjoying and making the most of free time available, McLoughlin launched Fit Fun Adventures (www.fitfunadventures.com) this year to showcase the places and activities which are available in Ireland. “My goal is to make it easy to plan and make your own experiences with family and friends from a walk by the beach, to a wellness weekend or surf lesson to a dance class with a simple online search. Experiences come in many varieties so there is something for everyone, all you need to do is get out there and enjoy yourself.”

Happiness may not be explicitly for sale but spending our money in a way which will enrich our experiences seems to certainly have a knock-on effect on our wellbeing. While a pair of purple suede kitten heels may bring a level of excitement to your life like no other, it is sure to fade.

However, perhaps wearing those kitten heels to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway will see the memories last longer and the happiness stretch further.

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