As part of doing my research for All The Money In The World, I’ve been reading a lot of studies on money and happiness. It is a truism of this literature that experiences make us happier than things. We anticipate experiences, and enjoy replaying them afterwards. Repeated happy experiences also have the upside in that they are always slightly different. Variability helps forestall hedonic adaptation — our tendency to get used to things, and hence not enjoy them so much anymore.
I’ve certainly been trying to keep this in mind as I go through the massive acquisition phase that accompanies buying a new house. But here’s the issue: the line between stuff and experience is more blurry than one might first imagine.
For instance, one of our first purchases was a teak table with chairs and an umbrella that goes on our back porch. A dining room table is, most emphatically, a thing. It is even cited in this paper on money and happiness as the opposite of spending money on an experience, like getting together with friends at a bar. The friends are always enjoyable in a varying fashion. Whereas the table just sits there.
But… one of my goals this summer was to eat outside as often as possible. Since moving to this new house, we have been eating outside every night, and often for breakfast too. This morning after I came back from my run (athletic gear = another category of stuff that I really enjoy spending on) we sat on the porch and ate cereal and pineapple and enjoyed the backyard. The backyard is brimming with flowers. Flowers are also things, but enjoying them is an experience. My spending money on stuff (table, flowers) has enabled me to enjoy the experience of eating outside.
So where is the line? The problem, of course, is that one can justify any purchase in this fashion. I’ve been trying to figure this out with buying rugs. It turns out that one can spend any amount of money on rugs. There are probably some people who are really into rugs, who view them as art and would enjoy sitting in a room and just taking in the intricacies of the stitching. These people should spend a lot of money on rugs, but I’m not really one of those people. So I’m always looking at a rug price tag and thinking “what else could that rug buy?” A trip to Europe. A lot of babysitting. You get the picture. But my table has already bought me 5 lovely outdoor meals, and hopefully will buy a hundred more before the end of the summer. Unless that whole hedonic adaptation thing kicks in and I decide that eating outside isn’t so special anymore…
What objects have you been happy to spend money on? And which do you view as a waste?