Want to Be Happy? Don't Buy the Next Big Gadget, Take a Trip

More

Is it more rewarding to spend money on experiences or gadgetry? 

ces-body.jpg

As the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas opens, a nagging question arises: will the latest device, from a smartphone to a 60-inch television, really make a difference to me? An article in the Washington Post points to a well-known paradox of consumption, the "hedonic treadmill."  After the initial pleasure of use, we grow accustomed to features and conveniences and don't feel better using them than we did the last generation of equipment. (This feeling was spotlit by The Onion a few years ago, as I mentioned in a previous post.)

The Post cites books by two economists, Todd Buchholz and Thomas Gilovich, on the superiority of experiences to possessions, including technology:

It's much better, Gilovich says, to spend money on doing things rather than buying things. Experiences, such as vacations and barbecues with friends, don't seem to be as easily devalued by our adaptive abilities. "You get a lot more social value out of your experiences," he says. "When you talk to people about your experiences, it tends to be an enjoyable conversation. You talk about material goods much less."

And our experiences don't lend themselves to easy comparisons, which gives them unique value. Gilovich points out that with a car, for example, comparisons are too easy: "Your car costs less money? It gets better mileage and it's more reliable? Argh! You have a better car than I do!"

But, he says, "What if you went to Bali and I went to Hawaii? Well, Bali's more exotic, but I went to Hawaii with friends and I have my memories, and I'm not worried by that comparison."

So a $200,000 space excursion can actually be excellent value compared with, say, a Bentley Continental GT.  But even at the price levels of the 99 percent, it's a question always worth asking about a new purchase -- in addition to saving the money: what is the alternative experience, unthreatened by comparisons, that the price would buy?

Image: Reuters.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Breathtaking Tour Above the Moab Desert

Filmmaker Ian Cresswell rigs an HD camera atop a remote-controlled "octocopter" for some spectacular aerial views.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In