The Happiness Trap: Things Versus Experiences

Bahamas sunset

I first noticed it during the coverage of the Winter Olympics. It was a Cadillac commercial for their newest car. It starts simply enough, with an attractive, middle aged man extolling the virtues of all things American. Then it goes off the rails, and fast. He makes fun of other countries that have more liberal vacation policies, is incredulous that people in other Western nations take 1 month off from work at a time and concludes the commercial by saying Americans work harder because we want more things. The commercial is repulsive, offensive and I believe practically jingoistic. It’s everything that is wrong with our culture in 2014, and I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.

In the past two weeks I’ve seen a lot of media coverage about a topic I first started addressing on this site almost from the very beginning. The New York Times, Huffington Post and even professional travel writers have all written pieces, variations on the theme that experiences in life are more important than all of the toys we could ever hope to possess. I’ve analyzed this in a number of ways, but I thought given the popularity of the subject, I’d try to once again crack this existential nut.

Lamborghini Bologna, Italy

Power of things

The one fallacy that I see in the aforementioned commercial is that it assumes that all people are driven in life by the possession of things. I remember when I was in elementary school, during the height of the 1980s years of excess, a poster in a store featured a fancy car with the line, “The one with the most toys wins.” I think I believed that for a long time and both my partner and I were absolutely driven in the race to get more stuff, to get fancier stuff and then let everyone know about it. We have a house that is too large and cars that are too expensive, both reminders of an ethos that we have thankfully since discarded. But what it this power that things have over us, why the rampant desire to accumulate?

I’m not going to answer that question in a 1,000-word post; books have been written, studies conducted and still it hasn’t been answered adequately. What I do know is that it is a cultural poison, one of our major problems as a civilization. Is there any problem with making money and buying nice things? No way, not at all. My virtual Apple Store of electronics proves that it doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when people pursue that as their main goal in life, rather than have it be just a part of their life as it should be. That’s what the commercial I hate alludes to. It urges us to ignore real actions in life that will make us happy in lieu of avatars of happiness. Soulless cars and fancy clothes; things that when we are old and frail will have long since been forgotten. What won’t be forgotten is what we do in life and how we do it.

Matt and Scott

Love the one you’re with

Yes, it really is all about the experiences, and this resonates throughout every facet of our life. Which will you remember more when you’re 89 – giving your daughter a new doll or her first time at the beach. I’m betting it’s the beach. Instead of accumulating things, we should be accumulating experiences and in the process memories. As others have correctly pointed out, this also translates very well to travel. Instead of spending money on houses that are too big or cars a few thousand dollars beyond one’s needs, I think diverting that money towards travel experiences is more important.

My partner and I are comfortable, but rarely do we buy new clothes and never anything all that nice, we seldom go to a restaurant and other than Apple products, we really don’t buy a lot of toys. Why? Because for us, what is more important is life is experiencing as much of the world as possible through travel. We save so that we can do a long weekend in Iceland or take an impromptu break in Florida. We have learned that what we value most in life is what we do, not what we own. We still talk about travel memories from a decade ago; we’re certainly not talking about the car we owned.

Which gets me to my next point. I think solo travel from time to time is absolutely wonderful – it’s a soul cleansing experience. But overall, I do believe that the travel experience is heightened by sharing it with someone. It doesn’t have to be a significant other, it can be a best friend or even colleague, but having someone there with you during the moment and years afterward to reflect on it, is truly a wonderful thing. We’re humans, we weren’t meant to always be alone and that’s particularly true when we explore the world.

rice Taiwan

What’s with the title?

Ah yes, the happiness trap. That’s what I call the life many of us lead. We’ve been fooled to think that certain things equal happiness. Growing up I never even considered deviating from the path that was laid out for me. College to grad school to job to better job to having lots of stuff. I was promised that at the end I would be happy, but that didn’t happen. Why? Because it’s a false argument. A mindless road of accumulating possessions never leads to happiness because there’s no end to it; it’s a continual process of one-upping yourself. Not only that, but doing anything that doesn’t make you happy WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT, is not worth doing at all.

I’m not saying that what you’re doing now is wrong. While I have an unconventional job, all of my lifelong friends and even my partner have very traditional jobs and lead traditional lives. That’s great, that’s normal. But it’s how you live this life that matters. It’s how meaningful you make your life that at the end of the day will be the true measure of what you accomplished on this planet.

One of my favorite movies is “Defending Your Life”. In it the recently deceased have to defend their actions in life after which a panel of judges must decide if they’ve learned enough to move on. The worst thing in their eyes is being afraid. Being afraid to be who you are or to live the life you want to. Afraid to pursue those experiences in life that ultimately define us as people. No matter what your path is in life or what you decide to do, just make sure that when it’s your turn to face that panel of judges, you can’t say you were too afraid to live a meaningful life not full of things, but full of people and memories.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

8 thoughts on “The Happiness Trap: Things Versus Experiences”

  1. I agree with this completely – it is so hard to deviate from the path that has been set out for us, but I think that more and more people are realizing that ‘things’ aren’t everything. But a good majority of people are still prioritizing new clothes, new car, etc. over travel – and then telling those who travel how ‘lucky’ they are. They don’t realize that luck has very little to do with it – it is all about hard work and sacrifices.

  2. Well said Matt. I agree 100% percent. 10 years ago before I discovered my passion for travel I would spent everything I’d earn on new clothes, gadgets, accessories etc and nothing on experiences. I wondered why I felt so bored and uninspired all the time. As my passion for travel grew my money started going more towards my trips and I felt less bothered about having the latest fashion in my wardrobe. The experiences I have had over the last 5 years will always mean more to me than anything else money can buy.

  3. For someone who is not traveling all the time I think it having a good balance is important. Traveling and sharing experiences with special people but also treating yourself once in a while is okay too. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. “We have learned that what we value most in life is what we do, not what we own.” So true. Great post– puts things into perspective and I think epitomizes why many of us travel lovers are the way we are. Though, I personally do consider a nice meal out part of the way that I experience life on a day to day basis in between travels. :)

  5. Love this! I totally agree with you. So many people mindlessly chase things that are supposed to make them happy without stopping to contemplate what will actually bring them true joy. This is a wonderful, very well-written and meaningful post, Matt – Another reminder why this is one of my favorite blogs :)

  6. Well said, Matt! I tend to have this debate with some of my friends who are always complaining they cannot travel here and there because they have bills to pay, usually for that unnecessarily upgraded new car. Of course we need to have some things. The problem is when you get obsessed by getting bigger and bigger things, those things will own you and not the other way around.

  7. Such a good article. I think its important though with experiences to not become obsessed with having as many unique experiences as possible and become obsessed with seeing certain things or having a certain amount of adventures as learning to truly enjoy the moment they’re in. I hate when travelers compare stamps in their passports… the number of countries you’ve been in means squat, its those moments where you truly connect to a moment that matters.

  8. AMEN to this, Matt. Friggin’ amen.I remember when I moved back to the UK, from Korea, and wound up at home for about five months. My mum looked in my room and said to me, with pity in her voice, “you don’t have much, do you?” I replied that I didn’t really need very much – I had clothes, and had gotten rid of most of my ‘stuff’ before leaving Korea. Things definitely don’t equate happiness. I remember when I worked in Newcastle after graduating university. I worked for a corporation, and everything was about what you owned. I was living way beyond my means, putting bills on credit cards, shopping at places that were far too expensive for me, drinking at swanky cocktail bars – but it didn’t make me happy (well, sometimes the cocktails did).

    My mum (yes, the same one who bemoaned my lack of ‘stuff’) told me that, as she gets older, she doesn’t really want ‘stuff’, she wants experiences. Rather than a new pair of shoes, she’d rather save up for a trip to Paris or buy concert tickets for Fascinating Aida (you should check them out). I’m learning this at a much younger age than she did, and I’m all the more happy for it.

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