When you're thinking about a big purchase for your family, do you go for the big screen TV or a family vacation? If you want to create memories that will last for your kids, you're better off spending on the trip, even if it turns out to be more rustic or mosquito-bitten than anticipated.
New happiness research shows that the joy from an experience lasts considerably longer than the happiness we feel when we buy something new. So while we feel great when we hook up the TV, a year from now that joy will be non-existent. But the trip to Disneyland? That's long-lived joy.
"Many people, in trying to decide how to spend their money on one thing or the other thing, think at least the material good will always be there," says Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University and researcher on a study about buying versus experiencing happiness. "But in the psychological sense it's the experience that lives on, not the material goods." And talking together about the experience also binds families together in a way that the new TV never will.
One reason for the difference in how long joy lasts is that people adapt to things, Gilovich says. So that great new car that you couldn't wait to buy soon becomes just the way you get to work. But experiences, such as using the new bikes you bought for the family, tend to have a greater social value than the bikes themselves. "Living through them, that's where the social bonding happens between families," Gilovich says.
Keep in mind, the experience doesn't have to cost much at all to linger in your kids' bank of great childhood memories.
"There's nothing in any of this that the experiences need to be at the Ritz Carlton," Gilovich says. "They can be at the local campground and often, in kinds of experiences, the most rustic seems to be more enduring."