We Americans have been conditioned to associate happiness with the acquisition of “things,” and in some cases, such as the cases of shelter, transportation, and food, that’s a logical and real association. We also expect to be made happy by nice things like expensive clothing, jewelry, or electronics – happier than we would be by experiences of comparable cost.
The train of thought is that physical objects last longer, so won’t they make us happier for a longer time than a single experience, like a hike, art exhibition, or concert? The answer frequently turns out to be “no.”
Adaptation Is Great in Some Ways, but Not Others
Humans are remarkably adaptable, and overall that’s a great thing. We buy things anticipating that they will make us happy, and often they do for a while. But then we quickly adapt to having those new things, and they tend to fade into the background.
When we accumulate experiences, however, like a road trip or an outing to the park, the adaptation is less pronounced. We don’t stop noticing an experience the way we do, say a new sofa that rapidly fades into the background of our lives despite being right there and available for use all the time. Buying physical objects is one instance in which our adaptive tendencies don’t result in significant long-term satisfaction.
What Older People Can Learn from the Millennial Generation
The Millennial generation can teach older people a thing or two about acquisition of possessions versus acquisition of experiences. After all, they’re chronicling their lives on social media, and many of them came of age when the economy was exceptionally bad, so they perhaps didn’t develop the devotion to acquiring “stuff” that their more economically advantaged elders did.
This is a concept we can sometimes incorporate into the workplace, particularly in a team-building context. Sure, you can get everyone matching coffee mugs, but a mutual experience will help everyone bond and provide the kind of satisfaction that doesn’t start fading immediately. You’re more likely to feel a connection to a coworker you participated in a team-building adventure with than to a coworker who has the same company t-shirt as you.
Perceived Quality of Goods vs. Experiences Over Time
In addition, when people look back on happiness with objects they acquire versus happiness with experiences, the levels are similar at first, but quickly begin to diverge. Satisfaction with purchases tends to decrease with time, while satisfaction with experiences tends to increase with time.
We are very much the sum of our experiences, because a fishing trip becomes much more a part of our identity than would, say, buying fish. By contrast, material things always will be separate from us to some extent. Even experiences that aren’t entirely happy often end up being valued for what they tell us about ourselves.
Experiences Connect People
Experiences connect people, even if they don’t experience the same thing at the same time. It happens constantly: think about the first workday after the last Star Wars movie was released. Plenty of people who saw it at different times were nonetheless bonded by having experienced the same film. Experiences go on to become parts of the narratives we tell each other.
Moreover, people are less likely to compare experiences negatively than they would with material objects. In other words, envy tends to manifest more strongly when it comes to things than it does with experiences. Is it any wonder so many businesses invest in shared experiences and adventures for building and strengthening teams?
When you’re considering the ways you can increase team coherence and positive morale, don’t just think about getting everyone golf umbrellas emblazoned with the company logo. A comparably priced experience, even if it’s as simple as a group social outing to a planetarium, will “stick” with everyone longer, provide raw material for countless anecdotes, and bring your team together the way only shared experiences can.
I encourage you to have a look at my books, which concern not only team-building, but organizational transformation. The scale from “good team” to “great team” isn’t linear, but more exponential, and going from good to great requires planning, hard work, and bonding among team members. The experiences that make up our lives, whether at work or otherwise, shape us and how we relate to others more profoundly than any material object ever could.