Memo to self: Experiences, not possessions, bring greater happiness

Northern Colorado, storm chase tour (Photo: DY, 2012)

Northern Colorado, storm chase tour (Photo: DY, 2012)

Over the weekend I was fiddling around with some photos using the editing tools on my computer, when I reminded myself of an important lesson, buttressed by scientific research: When it comes to using my discretionary cash, I am more likely to derive longer-term happiness by spending it on experiences than on material possessions.

Jonesing for bad weather

The photos were taken during a 2012 storm chase tour with Tempest Tours, a company that offers storm chasing expeditions into America’s tornado alley for enthusiasts of bad weather, led by highly experienced storm chasers.

I have been drawn to tornadoes ever since I was a very young child, when one passed through our NW Indiana neighborhood. (I’ve told the story in more detail here.) This fascination has continued well into my adult years, to the point where I’ve devoted to several vacations to storm chase tours with Tempest. In fact, one of the most exciting days of my life was the first day of my first chase tour in 2008, when our group intercepted a single supercell in northern Oklahoma that spawned multiple tornadoes throughout the afternoon and early evening.

My summer 2012 tour happened to deliver a great week of storm chasing, even without the benefit of post-facto tornado verification. We had a wonderful group of people that simply jelled, and thanks to our expert lead guides, we witnessed memorable storms, including several tornadoes.

But just how many tornadoes remains uncertain. One of the notable characteristics of that tour was encountering a number of “Is it or isn’t it?” views of possible tornadoes. You see, not every tornado is a sharply defined funnel from cloud to ground, with a visible debris field at the bottom. Light, distance, and angles may make it difficult to discern whether a funnel has actually reached the ground, thus becoming an “official” tornado.

So here I am this past weekend, playing around with photos from the 2012 tour, especially the “Is it or isn’t it?” shots. By using the photo enhancement tools on my Mac, I was able to make out various funnel clouds and apparent tornadoes on the ground. Four years after the fact, I now understand that we witnessed more tornadoes than originally met the naked eye!

Studies tell us…

I have great memories of these chase tours, and I’m still in touch with many of the professional storm chasers and fellow tour guests. Now, I don’t blame anyone for questioning the wisdom of someone who wants to spend precious money on a week of traveling thousands of miles in vans, eating grab & go meals from fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and staying in motels that will never be highlighted in travel guidebooks.

But for me, it’s an awesome experience that gets into my bones.

As I noted above, this isn’t just me talking. A growing body of psychological research suggests that, when we are making discretionary spending decisions, using our money to create good experiences rather than to accumulate more “stuff” will likely create greater happiness over the long run. Experiences, studies tell us, have staying power. They become a part of us, sometimes even more positively as time goes on. (Remember that vacation when everything seemingly went wrong? Now it’s the stuff of great stories.)

New possessions, by comparison, may give us a momentary new morale boost, but after that, the happiness they bring tends to level off. (Think about the fleeting pick-me-up of “retail therapy.”)

Overlaps

This is not to say that we do not derive satisfaction from buying nice things. After all, how we use, consume, or view them can provide ongoing pleasures, i.e., they may help us to create experiences.

Think about a favorite book, movie, game, item of clothing, or piece of art. Or new cooking utensils that lead to delicious meals. And, yup, the computer that enables us to sort out and play around with our collections of photographed memories.

Sometimes good experiences overlap directly with buying stuff we like. For example, I love checking out used bookstores and used book sales, and I confess that I get a little soggy over some of my book buying expeditions.

I get it

But I understand the larger point. As I scroll through this personal blog, I sense my energy levels rising when I write about favorite experiences, which include singing with friends, extended visits with friends and family, quick weekend trips, holiday rituals, and even academic conferences in the company of great people. They contribute to the fabric and richness of my life, often in ways that my latest purchases cannot.

That’s something to think about whenever I walk into a store or browse the retail world online. Better to seek out stormy weather, yes?

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