The Psychology of Experiential Living

In 1943, famed behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow was curious to learn what made emotionally-fulfilled people tick. To find out, he studied noted success stories such as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. He also looked at highly-functioning college students, poised to make their own marks on the world.

What did all these people have in common? In addition to having their basic physical and safety needs squarely met, each person carried a robust self-esteem, felt a sense of belonging within their communities, and were self-actualizing their life’s goals. In short: accomplishments and experiences—not things, made these people well-rounded and happy. Maslow went on to develop his now-famous Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, which breaks down the physical and emotional keys to happiness on a granular level. Nowhere on this list will you find flashy cars or expensive purses.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Thomas Gilovich Professor of Psychology CornellIn more recent history, Cornell University Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich has been studying the relationship between money and happiness for the last 20 years. And one of the chief reasons he believes experiences trump possessions, is because humans are remarkably adaptive creatures. So while we’re initially hooked by a new possession, we get used to its presence, and it quickly loses its luster.
On the flip side, memories of experiences tend to grow richer over time—even the negative ones. A disastrous trip is later framed as a character-building anecdote. Furthermore, similar experiences can bring people together in ways that physical objects usually do not. Two folks who discover they’re from the same hometown are likely to feel naturally connected. Two owners of the same smartphone? Not so much.

But despite the known benefits of experiential living, people still don’t seem to embrace this ideal in large numbers.

Ryan Howell Professor of Psychology SFOURyan Howell, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, has overseen multiple studies on the spending habits of students.

“None of our data shows any changes on how they’re spending their money on goods versus services,” says Howell “They’re allocating roughly the same proportion of income as they were five or 10 years ago.”

Howell originally believed that a lack of knowledge was the barrier to change. But he dismissed his own theory, when study after study proved that young people were in fact, acutely aware that life experiences will theoretically make them happier than material possessions.

“Where they seem to be off, is that they think buying material items will provide them with a sense of money better spent, because of the longevity of the physical item,” says Howell. “When people start to have discretionary incomes, they come to a crossroads where they believe they can either buy happiness or satisfaction with their purchases. But they’ll find that buying experiences is a better way to spend their money from an economical satisfaction standpoint and it’ll provide them with more happiness.”

So what does Howell believe it will take for young people to realize that experiences will win out over possessions? Getting older.

“In your 20s and 30s, there are evolutionary reasons to think that acquiring stuff will showcase where you are in the social hierarchy, in order to help you get a mate, which is a really important value,” says Howell. “But when we get into our 40s, there’s a dramatic shift, where we start thinking: ‘You know what’s really important in life? Friends and family.’ So while on an intellectual level, everyone talks about cultivating more experiences in their 20s, it becomes difficult to pull the switch and become less materialistic.”

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “The more we simplify our material needs the more we are free to think of other things.” Indeed, cultivating rich experiences can create memories that linger long after the novelty of a new possession wears off.