Stuff that enables an experience

photo-186In happiness literature, there’s a general distinction between “stuff” and “experiences.” Experiences tend to make us happier than things. The problem is that a lot of experiences are enabled by stuff. So the line isn’t always so clear.

A lot of the experiences my kids had this past weekend involved stuff that we actively chose to spend money on over the years. They made a last minute decision to go swimming around twilight on Saturday night, which was possible because we decided a few years ago to buy a house with a backyard pool. We roasted marshmallows over our fire pit, which was possible because we purchased that fire pit and a few outdoor chairs. Then the boys and my husband camped out in the backyard, an experience enabled by our tent (and an air mattress and sleeping bags; even so, when it rained from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., I think my husband would have been happier not to have had this experience).

The kids enjoyed it all. Indeed, when we went to the Reading Fair on Sunday, their favorite part of the photo-187experience may well have been winning stuffed animals in various games. We kept pushing the rides, but the honest truth is they were just as excited to play a silly game and pick out cheap toys. The cheap-o stuff was a key part of the experience.

I’m not sure there’s a larger point to this, other than that money and happiness are complicated topics. I doubt the cheap fairground toys will bring much joy to my kids long term. They’ll be clutter soon enough. But for a day, at least, the stuff and the experience were the same.

What stuff has enabled your summer experiences?



15 Responses to Stuff that enables an experience


  1. gwinne says:

    Yes…interesting collapse between them. Offhand I can’t think of anything as large as a firepit and pool, except perhaps our car and, more generally as you suggest, a house. And many small things, like a long-sleeved rash guard for me, that make it possible to enjoy (i.e. not have an allergic reaction to!) the outdoors.

    • Laura says:

      @gwinne – I think the rash guard is a good example. Even something like a beach umbrella can turn a day at the beach from something hot and unbearable to something pleasant. It totally changes the experience!

  2. Ana says:

    Yes, I’ve realized this dichotomy between “stuff” and “experiences”, and the dogma that experiences are always better, is just another one of those fads that’s being repeated all over the internet. Stuff makes the experiences possible, like you illustrated, and for small kids, sometimes the happiness created by stuff is more predictable than that from experiences (i.e. our weekend outings—that we planned as fun events for the kids—turned into total disasters. The only thing that resulted in a moment of joy was me pulling out some cheap toy I had saved in the closet as a “surprise”)

    • Eric J says:

      I for one don’t think it’s “just another one of those fads” that experiences are better than stuff… Granted, the point is certainly valid that stuff enables the experiences, but I still look back fondly on certain experiences decades past the point the stuff was no longer present… For example, I still remember the camping trip that was — by pretty much anyone’s definition — a “disaster”. And admittedly, while it wasn’t “fun” at the time, I still smile whenever I remember it. I’d never in my life been so cold — even since (I was 8 at the time) — but I wouldn’t have traded that experience for a thousand cheap-o toys. Sure, the camper van enabled the experience, but it’s the experience that has stayed with me.

      • Ana says:

        No, I do get this. I would much rather spend my money on an exciting trip than pretty much anything else. And whenever we can, we give our kids experience gifts (a concert, a play, a membership to the kids museum). But sometimes stuff is cool, too, and its OK to have a little of both. Like, we got my son a movie recently. We all watched it together (cool family experience), and then he and his brother watched it alone the next weekends (fun for them, and fun for us to get some downtime), and then he wants to invite his friends over to watch it… it was a $10 used Disney movie, but it has already amounted to more enjoyment than the >$50 we paid to spend 3 hot, miserable hours at the zoo.
        Mostly, I just don’t like being told the same thing over and over again in every parenting/money/lifestyle/happiness blog I encounter. The idea itself is probably not a fad, but the preaching of it seems to be on-trend right now.

        • Preach! (And for those of us who see a year of too much work travel ahead… the save money so you can travel the world advice is even more irritating.)

    • Laura says:

      @Ana – it is true that new toys provide guaranteed happiness for at least a little bit. We, too, have had the occasional outing/event that results in us yelling at the kids “this is supposed to be fun for you!” Like I didn’t go to that amusement park for my own amusement…

  3. Tana says:

    Related but not directly: Sometimes when we buy stuff, what we actually want is the experience. When I’m tired and weary and burned out, it’s easy to go and shop online for yarn (I’m a knitter). But then I ask myself, Do I want yarn or is what I really want just some time to sit in a corner and knit and not be bothered by anyone for a while? Usually it is the latter so I resolve not to buy yarn but rather to make time do to the things I enjoy.

    • ARC says:

      Oh my gosh, YES. As a crafter with a lifetime supply of paper, beads and other crafty bits, this is SO FREAKIN’ TRUE for me as well.

      It’s also easier for me to “make time” to shop, either with the kids, or online, than it is to carve out quiet alone time to actually use the stuff.

  4. Kelsie Medel says:

    This is an interesting topic and one that I’ve wrestled with since becoming a mother myself. For 8 years I’ve been on a quest to provide my son with the experiences that I may have missed out on in my childhood because the funds (and the ensuing “stuff”) weren’t always there. The jury is still out but I can’t say with certainty that the makeshift refrigerator box house and kitchen/sand toys provided any less of an experience for me at age 8 than the expensive tree house and playset sitting in our backyard now. I do know that once a precedent is set it’s hard to convert back to what you once had (or did) and have kids appreciate the simple experiences. But not impossible. ;)

  5. Katherine says:

    This is interesting. I recently wrote something similar on my blog- about how sometimes throwing money at a problem really does help (a lot). Not that I hear you saying that “stuff” or “things” fix everything, but- sure- the pool enabled the twilight swim. We would have to wait for the special nighttime swim (once a month) at our neighborhood pool and then hope it is a night when the kids are able to stay up late, the weather is good, etc etc.
    Anyway- I’ve said before that we used to live in a small space and I felt very self-righteous about not needing “things” to entertain my kids or make my life more comfortable or whatever. There’s still a lot of truth there, but sometimes stuff and things are nice as well. I no longer shun them for shunnings’ sake.

    • Laura says:

      @Katherine – I enjoyed your blog post. And I agree with your scenarios of when it is helpful to throw money at a problem. If your husband travels a lot and hence is not around to do his half of the kid stuff, then yes, it makes total sense to use money to do the things that he would do to make your life easier if he was there. Money has some serious upsides! That seems obvious, but there’s a cultural narrative out there that often tries to convince us otherwise. You can, of course, be wealthy and miserable, but if you do have some extra cash, you have an excellent tool at your disposal to improve a number of things.

  6. Alexicographer says:

    Yeah. This has been less of a “stuff” summer for us, our big vacation was flying somewhere, renting a car and staying in rented cabins (and hiking/splashing in ponds, not very stuff-heavy activities). But last summer’s vacation was brought to us by the camping trailer, which is a large and not-inexpensive piece of “stuff” and one we’ve enjoyed over and over again. And this summer I did wish I’d packed the inflatable kayak (yes, it can be transported on a plane just fine, as checked luggage); also, DS uses a wetsuit (that I grabbed at Goodwill on a whim, among my best such grabs ever) when he swims often even in our local, pretty warm in the summer, ponds/pools, but for some bizarre reason I didn’t pack it when we headed to this summer’s much colder destination — and he missed it. Oops.

  7. Leanne says:

    Having a kid definitely changed the spending priority for me. I used to save a lot of money for vacations, but vacations are so much more stressful with a kid (packing, entertaining him every minute of the day, thrown off sleep schedules) that I’d rather take a cheaper vacation and buy him a play set to use all summer.

  8. Twin Mom says:

    For our family, backpacking is the “experience” that is enabled by “stuff” (backpacks, special sleepinig bags/mats, food, cookstove)