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Are Experiences More Fulfilling Than Things?

On Wednesday night Patti, my wife, and I went to the Judy Collins concert at Prescott Park here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once this 74 year old folk singer got rolling, she was wonderful and still has a beautiful voice. Many of us are at points in our life where we are taking care of and losing parents and others close to us.

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On Wednesday night Patti, my wife, and I went to the Judy Collins concert at Prescott Park here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once this 74-year-old folk singer got rolling, she was beautiful and still has a beautiful voice. Her song ‘In the Twilight’, written to honor her mother, is one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard that mixes music and poetry. I recommend it to everyone – just listen carefully.

This was a delightful and fulfilling “experience”. Last week I read an interesting research report from Harvard that confirms something I think has significant business implications – we humans get more satisfaction, pleasure, and long-term happiness from experiences rather than “things.”

Happy Money

The researchers asked this question, “Think of purchases you’ve made intending to increase your own happiness. Think of one that was a material thing and one that was an experience. Which gave you more happiness?”

They found that 57 percent of Americans chose experiences, and only 34 percent chose material objects. The gap was wider among women and young people.

In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending – Buying Experiences Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton gives us remarkable insights into this topic. In an interview with Harvard, Associate Professor Norton said, “One of the most common things people do with their money is getting stuff. But we have shown in research that stuff isn’t good for you. It doesn’t make you unhappy, but it doesn’t make you happy. But one thing that does make us happy is an experience.”

Dunn and Norton write that the key lies in adhering to these five key principles:

  • Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts);
  • Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them);
  • Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases);
  • Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and
  • Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).

In this two-minute video Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending – Buying Experiences, you can watch how Norton doles out some cash to two women in Harvard Square on a sunny summer day. The catch: Each of them must take the money and spend it on a happy experience.

Many of my friends talk about their “bucket lists,” a term made famous by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in the movie of the same name. A “bucket list” is a list of things you want or want to do before you “kick the bucket.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that most everyone’s bucket list is full of “experiences” not “things.” This seems to support the authors’ findings.

One question the authors suggest we ask ourselves is, “How will this purchase change the way I use my time?” They write that when people focus on their time rather than their money, “they act like scientists of happiness, choosing activities that promote their well-being.”

I’ve begun to think about what this means to employers and helping our team members be happy. How can we (1) give our people enriching experiences, and (2) reward them with more time?

There are challenges for workers no longer spending much time in the workplace. For remote workers, the loss of small talk conversation and the diminished connections with people has created a void. Playing music for background noise helps as does making time to leave the home office to shop locally for some social interaction with people. Some charities need in-person volunteers so consider signing up for a couple of hours a week which can happen outside of your usual hours of work.

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