Culture At Large

Is buying an experience the way to buy happiness?

John Van Sloten

It turns out money can make you happy - if you spend it on the right things.

Recent consumer research has shown that people feel happier spending their money on experiences rather than on material objects.

This intuitively makes sense. If I think back on my most memorable purchases this past summer, they’re all highly relational: holding my wife’s hand in Paris for eight days; attending an Arcade Fire concert together; sharing an outstanding meal with friends; swimming laps with my son at the local pool; and hiking down to the edge of a small mountain lake, in the rain, with my family.

To be honest, it’s hard to even recall any of the material things I bought.

So yes. Spending money on experiences does bring a deeper and more lasting joy. And this makes sense from a theological perspective as well.

We are made in the image of a relational God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - who is always doing things together. God is into shared experiences and expends resources on relationship, both within Himself and with us. It’s part of God’s nature to spend in this way and presumably this is the most meaningful way to exist. So, when we spend our resources doing things together, we’re being more like God. When our consuming enables deeper relational opportunities - in a new context or in a new way or on a new day - we become more human and we more fully image God.

Shared experience with another human being is a foretaste of what we’re ultimately made for.

One thing these consumer studies affirm is that our love for shared experiences comes to us naturally. God made us to find meaning in spending ourselves relationally. In the most ultimate sense, we are meant to spend all that we have on a shared experience with God. And, in a lesser sense, when we spend our money, time or effort on a shared experience with another human being and find joy, satisfaction or peace there, we’re actually experiencing a foretaste of what we’re ultimately made for.

When a good friend really listens to you over coffee at Starbucks, you can be assured that God, too, is always listening. When you delight in your child’s freedom as they play while on holidays, you can know that God also feels that same kind of delight toward you, His child.

Through their consumer studies, researchers conclude that there are several reasons why spending our money on experiences can, in a sense, buy happiness. One is that experiences engage our imaginations more deeply: we pre-plan and dream about our future trips and therefore experience more pre-spending joy. Again, we’re made in the image of a God who pre-planned and imagined all of history - the whole trip!

Another reason researchers cite is that experiences evoke less social comparison and envy in others. This is partly because experiences don't have to be expensive to bring happiness. A bottle of wine with good friends can go a long way in terms of bringing joy. Researchers also say that experiences are a little harder to directly compare, as opposed to a pair of shoes or a flat-screen television.

I’m not sure I fully buy this rationale, as I’m still able to envy my friend’s experiences as they post about them on Facebook. Yet it is true that no two experiences really are the same. And in this way they are not clearly comparable. I’ve often had very inexpensive experiences that seem just as meaningful as my more expensive ones. So, experiences seem to have a capacity to bring happiness regardless of the amount of money spent.

To be human, then, is to spend your self, in faith, on an experience with Another. We’re meant to do things together. With each other and with God.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Money, Theology & The Church, Faith