Memo to self: Experiences, not possessions, bring greater happiness
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.”)
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?
If you’ve got some time to kill…
As some of you know, I’ve been writing a professional blog, Minding the Workplace, for over six years. A lot of the material is heavier stuff, looking at employee relations, workplace bullying, employment law, psychological health at work, and so on. But on occasion I’ve written pieces with a lighter touch that may be of interest to readers here. I thought I’d dig into the archives of that blog and share a few of them:
Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come? For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.”
What now, not what if (2013) — “Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them….That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.”
The perils and pleasures of nostalgia, even about work?! (2013) — I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school….My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program….Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity.”
August 1982: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (2012) — “This month, I find myself particularly nostalgic over events of 30 years ago, when I moved from Hammond, Indiana to New York City to begin law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. This was a pretty big deal for me. Although I had benefited greatly from a semester abroad in England during college at Valparaiso University, I was far from worldly and had never been to New York City before applying to NYU….Within a few days of my arrival, I would start classes in Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, on the southwest corner of Washington Square….”
Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012); Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) — “With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience….”
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide toward good transitions (2012) — As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition….If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.
Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.”
Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this. Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults. Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.”
Pursuing your passion (realism edition)
The title of Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (1989) is perhaps the world’s easiest eight-word commencement speech, and it has been repeated, mantra-like, in countless pep talks and career counseling sessions. At least before the Great Recession hit, the book was extraordinarily popular in college career services offices, especially for liberal arts majors.
In fact, it’s a pretty good read and worth a look for anyone in a career/life shifting or changing mode. However, the message conveyed by the title may sound downright starry-eyed and naive to those juggling rent payments or a mortgage, kids, car payments, a grocery bill, and the rest…maybe to the point where you’re saying to yourself, oh c’mon, what a load of fertilizer.
And yet, we go around only once in this lifetime, and it strikes me as being a terrible shame for folks to give up on what activities engage and excite them. So here’s what I call the Realism Edition of Pursuing Your Passion:
First, it may be possible for you to turn your passion into a job. Is there a demand for what you like to do? Are your talents sufficient to satisfy that demand? Will the income pay the bills? It could take you a while to answer these questions, but if the answers lean toward yes, then maybe you can make a go of it.
Second, even if the prospects of turning your passion into a full-time job are limited or doubtful at this juncture, can you start by doing it as a side gig or perhaps as an avocation? You’ll be able to derive enjoyment from the activity, maybe earn some income from it (or at least cover expenses), and plant possible seeds for turning this into your next career.
Third, if your passion doesn’t necessarily translate into income, can you pursue it as a hobby? With the busy demands of everyday life, we’ve lost sight of hobbies as a meaningful, important activity. Maybe it’s not in the stars, at least for now, for you to be a pro basketball player, famous clothes designer, or featured nightclub singer. But how about joining a hoops league at the Y, setting up a knitting space in a spare corner, or participating in a local singing group?
In some cases, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow may be more dreamy invocation than hard reality. But even if your passion isn’t meant to be your main income source, there should be a way to bring the core joys of that activity into your life. There are no guarantees, of course, but wouldn’t it be a shame not even to try?