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

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.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

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

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In