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Why We Need to Place More Value on Experiences

So, if our relationship between possessions and happiness is so tenuous, why do we still give it so much worth? Why are our physical possessions still tied to success and, in some cases, how we define ourselves? Perhaps it's time we redefine what we measure and how.
06/03/2014 03:46pm ET | Updated August 3, 2014
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Possessions or experiences: which makes you happier?

This was the question posed to the audience during a conference panel I attended several weeks ago.

In thinking about the joy I feel after a shopping spree or whenever I get a new gadget (i.e., Apple product), one could argue that possessions are what makes us happier. After all, many of us fashion our life goals around being able to afford certain possessions. For us, it is physical proof that we've achieved a level of wealth and success. Buying a new house or car is a great accomplishment -- one that is rightfully celebrated. And the bigger the house, the nicer the car, the more satisfaction we get, right? At least temporarily.

Possessions also make it easier for us to determine where we stand in relation to others and what we should work toward. If and when we reach that benchmark, we feel happiness. But again, it's fleeting. As Steve Taylor writes in his article, "The Madness of Materialism":

The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days. The sense of ego-inflation generated by wealth or expensive possessions can be more enduring, but it's very fragile too. It depends on comparing yourself to other people who aren't as well off as you, and evaporates if you compare yourself to someone who is wealthier than you. And no matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires.

So, if our relationship between possessions and happiness is so tenuous, why do we still give it so much worth? Why are our physical possessions still tied to success and, in some cases, how we define ourselves? Perhaps it's time we redefine what we measure and how.

Then we have experiences, which can be anything from a picnic in the park with friends to a luxury vacation on the other side of the world. Are experiences what makes us happier? Studies suggest it is.

In his new book, Stuffocation, author James Wallman declares that society has an affliction: too much stuff. He argues that in order to combat our predilection for buying things, we must instead do things and seek out experiences because that is what leads to more happiness. According to the author, experiences are harder to compare than material goods, which means less anxiety for us. They also involve more social interaction -- a key factor of happiness -- and say something about who we are. As Wallman told Salon: "things that happen to us, that we have done, really contribute to our identity."

To me, this correlation between experiences and happiness means making changes to what we value. It means tipping our value scale more toward those intangible moments that are harder to measure but will ultimately make us more fulfilled. Success does not have to be limited to the nice house or fancy car; it can and should encompass all of the experiences and relationships that have enriched our lives.

Years from now when I am looking back on life, I think what I will remember most are the experiences I had over the years. Like the summers I spent as a child telling scary stories and playing outside with my sister and cousins, or when I bonded with a fellow solo female traveler on a plane from Thailand to Hong Kong, or even the weekend afternoons spent in my apartment reading and listening to the sounds outside my window. These experiences may be hard to measure against the experiences of others but they are contributing both to my happiness and to how I choose to view success, and that is what is most important.

I still appreciate the possessions I have and will certainly attain more over time, but I know these possessions do not define me or make me "successful." I know that, instead of a fear of missing out on a certain purchase, I want to feel more fear of missing out on a great experience. Not just for the sake of being able to say I did something, but so I can add that experience to the collection of memories I am filing away and am grateful I decided to value.