How I Learned to Value Experiences over Possessions

Written by Nicola Brown

Tuesday, November 24th, 2020

Without realizing it, before 2020 I had become caught up in the mindset that spending money meant achieving something. Things like buying a house, getting a car, purchasing nice clothing all represented levels of life achievement in my mind.

If I could afford better things, it meant I was doing well, right?

As someone with a degree in Psychology, I was supposed to know better. I'm constantly reading about how money doesn't equal happiness. I even completed a course in the Science of Well-Being this year.

But it took COVID-19 to really drive the point home. 2020 halted my spending habits, from cutting out travel and restaurants to delaying a home renovation and a wedding. Yet at the peak, when everything was shut down, even when work dried up for my partner and me, I wasn't unhappy.

Learning to Appreciate Family, Friends and the Great Outdoors

Instead of acquiring "stuff," I was spending more time outdoors, visiting nearby provincial parks for the first time, tending to our garden and enjoying long hours working from home in the sun and fresh air. I also spent more time helping out my elderly parents, doing their grocery shopping so they could remain safely at home. My partner and I suddenly had more days at home together, a privilege I hadn't considered before that brought us closer together. Instead of eating out and starting our renovation, we started cooking new meals at home and working on DIY projects.

In other words, I started to recognize the joy and fulfillment of experiences that didn't cost much: spending time in nature and spending time with family. It created a feeling I wasn't expecting during the pandemic: gratitude. I was able to slow down enough to start appreciating all the little things I already had, and savouring moments I once took for granted.

I didn't miss things like shopping for clothes. At all. What I did miss were restaurants. Why? Because sitting down to a meal with friends and family is an experiential activity. You don't end up with any kind of material possession afterwards, just the glow of a rewarding social connection and good memories.

Thinking back to the Science of Well-Being course, I now recognize several important pillars of happiness in my lifestyle transformation of the past few months: social connection, gratitude, and savouring. Each of these things have been shown scientifically to increase happiness1.

How I Shifted My Spending Mindset

Overhauling detrimental spending habits can be a challenge, but there are several behavioural tricks I've learned to help, and a world of benefit to be gained from embracing experiences over possessions.

1. Getting Smarter About Goal Setting

To achieve a goal, I need to make it specific. It isn't enough to say "I'll stop spending so much time and money online and start spending more time with family." How much am I going to cut back? How am I planning to achieve it? When, where, and in what ways am I going to spend more time with family?

I use mental contrasting. First, I envision the benefits of achieving my goal and imagine how good it will feel to do so. Second, I consider all the potential obstacles to achieving my goal, then use this to generate solutions so I'm prepared to handle those challenges as they arise.

2. Using Social and Situational Support to Change My Habits

One of the ways I can set myself up for success is to use the environment around me. For example, setting a timer on my phone to limit the amount of time I spend browsing retail sites online can help me avoid making unnecessary purchases. Keeping my phone and wallet outside the bedroom when I'm sleeping can help me avoid the temptation first thing when I wake up and before I go to bed.

Enlisting social support is something I've found particularly helpful. Talking about and sharing my goals with others makes me more accountable.

3. Establishing a Regular Meditation Practice

Meditation is probably one of my most valuable tools to support positive behavioural changes and increased happiness. A regular meditation practice can help me step back from the daily noise of my thoughts and emotions, and gain some perspective. I use a meditation app.

Slowing Down is Worth the Time and Effort

As the past several months have taught me, learning to value experiences over possessions is well worth the time and effort. In the midst of it all, you may actually find that not even an unexpected challenge can rain on your happiness parade. 

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