Pop psychology has this unique ability to take the worst of philosophical sophistry, combine it with the shoddiest research methods, and spit out ill-begotten, yet Scientific™, platitudes about how we should live our lives. Whether their work sits on the bookshelves of airport kiosks or is featured on the latest episode of Oprah, these gurus of good living know exactly what human fulfillment consists in, and they are more than happy to share that with the ADHD-addled, depressed, morbidly obese masses.
The latest slice of wisdom to make the rounds is more insidious than usual because it has the virtue of kinda, sorta sounding true, maybe. The claim is this: If you want to be happy, stop spending your disposable income on things, e.g., TVs, cars, jewelry, etc. Instead, spend your money on experiences. As one recent article puts it, if you have to choose between buying the newest BMW or vacationing in an exotic country, definitely choose the latter as that is more likely to make you a happier, more fulfilled human being.
Over the past twelve months, this simple directive of “experiences over stuff” has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and everywhere in between. Perhaps the idea is so popular because it sounds like solid advice, even noble, as if it eschews the baser materialism of our times. The Gordon Gekkos of today are enlightened enough to know that yachts don’t beget happiness. No! True happiness is hiking in Africa and watching the sunrise on Mt Kilimanjaro (with your family, of course).
Psychologist Dr. Thomas Gilovich gives two main reasons why experiences are a better investment in your happiness than buying that yacht.
First, a yacht is a thing and things get boring after a while. Experiences, on the other hand, have the virtue of ingraining themselves in our memories and thus becoming part and parcel of our identities. As Gilovich figures:
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
Secondly, experiences are more likely to connect us to other people than material objects:
“We consume experiences directly with other people,” says Gilovich. “And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.”
Quite profound insights there from Gilovich so long as you don’t think about them for more than a few seconds.
For example, is there really that much of a distinction between experiences and things? Surely Gilovich can imagine how owning a yacht can be conducive to creating lasting memories and connecting with people, as much as any two-week vacation in Africa. Of course, a yacht is on the more opulent side of the stuff spectrum, but the same can be said about any material good. Owning a product is always an experience, and as a matter of fact, that is exactly how many products are marketed!
Beyond advertising, the driving force behind many of our consumer purchases are the experiences we associate with those material goods. From that perspective, it is almost like the physical object at the center of those experiences is merely incidental. The kid who saves up to buy a brand new basketball is actually interested in all the fun he is going to have playing with his peers at the park and all the potential friendships he stands to forge. The grandmother who buys her three year-old grandchild a new bike is actually interested in the joy and the excitement on the boy’s face as he receives his gift and all the firsts of learning how to ride a bike. The basketball and the bike — or the BMW and the yacht for that matter — are in many ways simply conduits for that memory-making, those experiences.
In this way, the entire distinction between experiences and things collapses, as do the pseudo profundities of Gilovich, et al.
Beyond these conceptual incoherences, what is especially vexing about Gilovich’s experience fetishism is the idea that experiences are something that can be bought and accumulated. Gilovich wonders to himself, “As a society, shouldn’t we be making experiences easier for people to have?” as if we need social welfare programs that, in addition to doling out blankets and hot soup to the needy also ensure people are getting their daily minimum requirement of experiences.
Joking aside, I often ask myself, why don’t I have more experiences? Usually, it’s a question that comes up when reviewing my resume. Upon further reflection, that seems to be the underlying context in which this focus on experiences makes sense. In terms of a resume, an experience is something compact, packageable, something that quantifiably adds to your overall worth as a potential hire. I suppose there are incorrigible careerists out there who cannot resist conflating that professional meaning of “experience” with the “experiences of life.” In that sense, a “bucket list” is the final resume some envision their lives culminating in.
Maybe for some, the entirety of life is one long resume building opportunity for a job opening that will never be. Even if we do not personally see ourselves in this category of people, do we nonetheless see our own lives as ultimately a series of experiences, one after another?
That conception seems to be overly beholden to a kind of empiricist, representationalist view of human consciousness, that what makes us who we are is a series of sensations and sense data that we store in our heads and, then, at a later date, we can replay for ourselves and interpret as if watching a movie of our lives. With the ubiquity of social media and cell phone recording technology, many of us do see our lives as essentially a movie production or a series of Facebook or Instagram posts. What is the perfect social media profile? What “experiences” would such a profile showcase? With this mindset, it is hardly surprising that many in our society do derive significant pleasure from having “experiences” that they can photograph, video record, upload, and show off to friend, family, and follower. But is that pleasure contributing to one’s happiness or to one’s vanity?
And that is another thing that bothers me about “chasing experiences” — the vanity of it. There is something disturbing and artificial about the idea that experiences — as the fundaments of life itself — are to be pursued insofar as they contribute to one’s sense of self, one’s personal satisfaction. What is valuable in any given place and at any given time is the fact that you are there to take in that moment and make it a part of your personhood, to add it to the list of experiences you have had. All world religions and ethical systems decry this kind of egotistical impulse to see one’s self as the focal point of this cosmic drama of life. But modern psychologists like Gilovich urge us to embrace this instinct and even cultivate it, to make a vacation out of it.
Then again, stroking one’s ego does contribute to some version of “happiness.” Or, is it just base pleasure, a sating of the nafs? Unfortunately, Gilovich and social psychologists in general do not ponder too deeply on such distinctions. Their research conclusions depend on respondents’ subjective assessment of their own happiness. But, do people in general have the depth of insight into their own mental states or even the conceptual framework to distinguish between, say, a carnal, transient satisfaction and the deeper, more meaningful happiness that most of us are presumably striving for?
Of course, the materialistic, atheistic paradigm that dominates the social and physical sciences denies that there can be any metaphysical or spiritual happiness above and beyond mere bodily pleasure. In the end, its all just dopamine flooding our brains, nothing more, nothing less — certainly nothing meaningful about it. For those of us who do understand that happiness is of various shades and significances, that true happiness is something otherworldly, inexorably tied to our purpose as human beings on Earth, then not only are Gilovich’s conclusions on “experience vs. material” fundamentally flawed, but so is all social psychological research that assumes this flat, reductionist view of happiness.
The fact of the matter is that science cannot tell us what happiness truly is because science is not — or, at least, should not be — teleological. Science, by its very nature, cannot tell us what our purpose is, what we are here for, and, therefore, it can never determine how we can be fulfilled in that unique way that entails real happiness. One does not have to be Muslim to accept this reasoning, but Muslims especially should be wary of these often spurious claims coming from the multi-billion dollar self-help and positive psychology industry, which, if the frenzied devotion of its adherents is any indication, has become a modern secular religion unto itself.
But, as Muslims, we do know the purpose of life and we do know that happiness in this life and the next comes from fulfilling that purpose. (And how merciful is our Creator that He deliberately made it so that fulfilling our purpose is also the source of happiness; He could have made circumstances different, where fulfilling our duties and doing good were a source of depression and sadness.)
In the final assessment, we have to be impressed by how Gilovich, et al., were able to repackage and promote what is essentially consumerism, i.e., the decadence and blameworthy self-indulgence sages have censured throughout history. Tying consumerism to happiness is as cynical as it is bold, but thankfully most people understand that consumerism and consumption have nothing to do with happiness, at least not the deep, meaningful happiness most of us care about. If we can all agree on that much, then what difference does it make if the consumption is of the stuff-buying or experience-buying variety?