To Have or To Do? The Great Dilemma: Experiences versus Things

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

“Life is about experience . . . you can’t hold onto everything.” – Sarah Addison Allen

Every human life is a mosaic of experiences, and we invariably leave trails of material objects in our wake. As humans, we constantly grapple with a fundamental dilemma: what brings us more happiness - acquiring tangible possessions or collecting intangible experiences?

Are we more fulfilled by the gleam of a brand new car or the glow of a sunset on a beach halfway around the world?

Do we prefer experiences or things?

Understanding the Allure of Material Possessions

Humans are naturally acquisitive beings. We derive pleasure and satisfaction from acquiring and owning things. Since time immemorial, tangible possessions have been seen as indicators of success and status. Having more or better material goods is often equated with being more successful in life.

Material possessions offer a sense of permanence and security that experiences, by their fleeting nature, can't provide. Items like a home, car, or clothing allow for repeated use and long-term enjoyment. They represent our tastes, identities, and accomplishments.

Moreover, possessions can sometimes enable experiences. A car may facilitate a memorable road trip. A good-quality camera can help capture a moment forever. A book can transport us to different worlds and times.

The Magic of Experiences

Conversely, experiences are events or occurrences that we live through. They can be as mundane as a daily walk in the park, or as extraordinary as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. They are ephemeral, only lasting for a short period, yet the memories they create can last a lifetime.

Experiences contribute significantly to our personal growth and self-identity. They help us shape our perspectives, foster our relationships, and build our character. Even negative experiences can have positive outcomes, teaching us important lessons and making us more resilient.

The Argument for Experiences Over Things

Research in the field of positive psychology suggests that experiences often trump possessions in terms of long-term happiness. Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, has conducted extensive research on this topic. His studies indicate that people derive more satisfaction from experiences than from material possessions.

There are several reasons for this. Fundamentally, experiences are more likely to be shared with others, fostering a sense of connection and belonging. They form a part of our identity in a way that material possessions can't. We are the sum total of our experiences, not our possessions. Additionally, experiences are less likely to be negatively compared to others' experiences than possessions are to others' possessions. Moreover, the joy from experiences often begins during the anticipation stage and extends into the reminiscence stage, providing a broader timeframe for happiness compared to the typically short-lived thrill of acquiring a new item.

The Experiential Shift in Society

Interestingly, societal values appear to be shifting toward experiences. The millennial and Gen Z generations, in particular, have been characterized as 'experience seekers'. They tend to value experiences over things, prioritizing travel, adventure, and novel experiences over the accumulation of possessions.

In a digital age where sharing experiences on social media platforms is common, experiences have gained a new form of 'currency'. They can be shared and relived with others in a way that possessions often can't. Furthermore, in an increasingly cluttered world, many people are turning to minimalism, preferring to invest their resources in experiences rather than accumulating more possessions. The "less is more" philosophy suggests that having fewer possessions can lead to a simpler, more focused life, leaving more room for meaningful experiences.

The Potential of Experientialism

Following this experiential trend, businesses are also focusing on providing experiences rather than just selling products. This is evident in the rise of the 'experience economy', where goods and services are designed and marketed to provide a memorable experience. Whether it's experiential dining, immersive art installations, or travel companies offering unique local experiences, the emphasis is on creating something that resonates on an emotional level and creates lasting memories.

The Personal Preference Paradox

Despite the evidence supporting experiences, it's important to note that personal preferences play a significant role in this debate. Some individuals find profound joy and satisfaction in collecting or owning certain items, such as art, books, or cars. For them, these possessions may indeed contribute to their happiness and well-being just as much as, or perhaps even more than, experiences. Similarly, the value we attach to experiences can vary. A music lover might cherish a concert experience more than a nature lover would, while the nature lover might find more joy in a quiet hike.

Embracing the 'And'

Ultimately, the question shouldn't be framed as 'experiences or things', but rather as 'experiences and things'. Both play vital roles in our lives. The challenge lies in finding the right balance that aligns with our personal values, aspirations, and resources. For some, happiness might come from a well-curated personal library or a beloved collection of vinyl records. For others, it might be memories of a cross-country road trip or a cooking class in Italy.

In the quest for happiness and fulfillment, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of experiences versus things. The key lies in understanding ourselves and our unique preferences. It's about balance. After all, the things we own can enhance our life experiences, and our experiences often lead us to value our possessions in new ways. Ultimately, it's not just about having or doing, but about living fully and mindfully, with an appreciation for both the material and experiential aspects of our lives.

The real question is: what brings meaning and joy to your life? Is it the things you surround yourself with, or the experiences you've lived? Or perhaps a bit of both? The answer is deeply personal and unique to each individual. So, whether you prefer to have or to do, remember that both can contribute to a well-rounded, fulfilling life. It's not a matter of choosing one over the other, but rather understanding how each can enrich your life in its own unique way.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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