Here’s a little experiment to try:
Think back 10 years ago. Consider where you were in life. What were you doing? Who were you hanging out with? What was life like? Now, think of two specific memories:
- Something you bought. Think of a physical thing. Maybe it was your first iPod. A car. A big stereo.
- Something you experienced. Think of something more abstract. A vacation. The birth of a child. A sports league you were in.
When you compare these two things side by side, ask yourself, “Which of these things makes me more happy today? Which do I care about more and look back on with more happy memories?”
If you said the experience, you just confirmed decades of research into the science of happiness: doing things makes you happier—over the long-term—than having things.
Of course, you already know this intuitively. But what you might not know is why. And, in the world today, the urge to overwhelm ourselves with material things—gadgets, cars, bigger houses, toys—is great.
Here’s why having lots of novel experiences will make you happier than buying things, and a new way to think about using your money and time to make sure you spend it on things that will still matter to you tomorrow.
Memory Capital: Why Your Brain Values Experiences Over Possessions
It’s intuitive when you look backwards. You remember things you did, the places you saw, and the people you met and spent time with. You remember dates, parties, vacations, celebrations, dinners, hot days at the beach, and cold nights on the mountain. And they make you happy when you think about them.
You remember some of the things you bought, too. Maybe you even look back on some of them fondly but, for the most part, you have a hard time caring much about them now.
Why is that? Turns out, it has a lot to do with how your brain forms memories. For a long time, everyone accepted that memory was static—you have an experience, store it away, and then you remember it exactly the way it happened every time afterwards.
But it isn’t true. Actually, science has shown us memories are built on the fly, from scratch, each time you recall them. Because of this, your memories are actually different every time you think of them. You can see this in action the next time your grandpa tells you the same fishing story you’ve heard 100 times. The basic elements of the story are the same, but the details change—specifically the size of the fish. Grandpa isn’t lying, his memory is just changing over time. You’ll do the same as your own memories age.
When it comes to being truly happy, scientists call this “memory capital.” A month-long European vacation or a summer of pick-up basketball comes with a lot of details, and you try to remember them all. Over time, the memory morphs and changes. It’s almost like getting a brand new experience each time you recall it.
A happy memory is something you can recall often and it provides the novelty of something new each time. That’s very different from, say, a fancy iPod—something that, once you have it, it never changes.
If you want to be the happiest you can be, spend your time and money creating memories instead of buying toys. And when you do buy toys, make sure they’re toys you can use to make memories—toys that help you have more fun and interesting experiences with people you love.
Oh, and here’s a hack for having memorable experiences and fun toys at the same time: build them yourself. I think the truly happiest people on Earth spend most of their time building their own experiences than buying them.
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