To Do or To Have?

HappinessIf you had $100 to spend to make yourself happy, would you buy something or spend it on a memorable experience?

According to a Cornell paper entitled “To do or to have: That is the question“, the things you own don’t make you as happy as the things you do.  The authors provide three primary explanations:

  • No matter how much we like a possession when we acquire it, we eventually get used to material things which dampen their lure. By contrast, memorable experiences stay fresh or even grow over time. (within three months)
  • Experiences usually involve other people and the shared memory foster or strengthen relationships.  Possessions are often an isolated happiness.
  • It’s socially acceptable to discuss experiences with others while people who brag about their possessions are typically considered less likable.

In addition, it’s difficult to compare your experiences with those of others while comparing possessions is fairly straightforward. Comparisons can provoke feelings of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Professor Ryan Howell from San Francisco State University extends this research by showing that people who wrote about their experiences show a higher satisfaction after the experience had passed. Proof that blogging about your life is good for you!

Howell’s work also suggests a halo effect; people that interact with study participants who chose experiences were happier than people who interact with those who chose to buy something. This increased happiness occurred regardless of whether they were directly involved in the experience.

I’m not a scientist but I wonder about the applicability of these studies. They seem predicated on the assumption an event is either a purchase or an experience. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. For example, I purchased a particular cast-iron skillet so that I could experience cooking with it and have it improve with age.

The same can be said for my convertible. While it’s true I’m now used to the idea of a car without a top, I will never forget the memory of my first trip to the beach in it.

To do or to have? Maybe that isn’t an answerable question.

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14 Responses to To Do or To Have?

  1. den August 8, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    To do every time…the things that stick most in my memory are not the financial victories but the things that changed stuff along the way, both professionally and personally.

  2. Christian Happel (@happel) August 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I agree. Especially if it’s “only” a hundred dollar. I can’t think of a lot you can do with a hundred dollars rather than going on a romantic dinner or so (which is difficult with 2 small children, but that’s another story). But you can have a few things that you can use for doing something. Even though a little bit more expensive my example would be a good camera or a special lens that you buy to take really good pictures. It’s pretty much applicable to every hobby, but it’s more like a combination of having and doing.

  3. John Appleby August 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    Jonathan, if I’m being honest, some of the most rewarding times in my life were when I did not have, and had to use experiences to enjoy life.

    It’s definitely true that possessions can be a means to experience, but that is by the by. With a nice camera, I can capture an experience, but I could remember it without the camera. I don’t enjoy the experience any more for the possession.

  4. Heather Kilcrease (@Recruiting_U) August 11, 2011 at 6:01 am #

    Great post. Thank you for the insight!

  5. Joao Silva August 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Very Interesting. I guess in life, balance is the key. If you do things just for the sake of possession or just for the sake of experience, you don’t get it all.

  6. hdeason August 23, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    I believe you should choose “to do” every time. At the risk of getting into the nature vs. nurture argument, I think people are inherently wired one way or the other. My parents love to tell the story of how they gave their 3 daughters $100 each on the last day of our european summer vacation. While my sisters bought french clothes and perfume, I rented a fabulous cabana on the French Rivieria and order cokes “with ice” all day….at 12 years old.

    • Jonathan August 29, 2011 at 8:27 am #

      Heather, great story and reinforcing the nature of To Do. I might add that the Heather i know today does not sound that different from the Heather at 12.

  7. Mark Finnern (@finnern) August 24, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Erich From wrote about it already in the 70s in his book: To have or to be? His conclusions are a bit off, but it really opened my eye to it.

    @john appleby: Having a good camera doesn’t guarantee that your experience will be enhanced. By definition it makes you an observer and a less active participant.

    It also changes the dynamic of the situation:
    How was your wedding?
    I am not sure, I haven’t seen the pictures yet 😉

  8. Tim Clark August 26, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    A nice addition to one of your earlier posts about culture eating strategy’s lunch. Imagine if employers were tasked with creating more memorable experiences for employees? Will never happen but one can always dream 🙂

  9. Leslie Curtiss August 31, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    Definately experience. I spent 10 years raising my children and now that they are older, I really miss my babies. I have no idea what I bought in that time, but I remember so much with them. Life is about living and living is about sharing with other people!

  10. Robert E September 8, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    There is another thing you can do with that $100 and that is give it to someone or something else. I wish they included that in their study as well.
    It’s all about sharing, nothing wrong with having ‘stuff’, it’s how we use it and share it with others – whether cooking a meal, sharing your good mood after a drive in the convertible or providing for your favorite arts organization or charity.

  11. Rajesh Kumar September 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    …agree, I would much rather have a Ferrari to drive for a few weeks on the autobahn or autostradta, rather than own it for an year

  12. selfsagacity October 19, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    To do is always the preference but don’t leave out the to have either. Because of your convertible, you’ve made your memories more profound. I would say if I only had a dollar left, what would I do with it? And the ideal is to create something memorable. The dollar actually allows me a little room to be creative with creating memories. Wonderful subject.

  13. Jaime Farinos January 23, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    My two favorites ways of spending $:

    1. Experience (i.e. travel, organizing an event)
    2. Investing on learning (learning takes experiences to the next level, makes them bloom. Languages, Cooking, Painting, Photography…)

    If you don’t know how to cook, I consider the skillet as a learning investment. If you do, it could either be part of the experience but if you have many, then just frivolous.

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