What’s stopping you being an experientialist?

What’s stopping you being an experientialist?

So you know experiences are better than material goods, you know there’s scientific proof… and yet, somehow, someway, you find yourself still in that old cage… hankering after That Shiny New Thing, and you can’t help wondering if people — including you! — will think you’ve made it, you’ve stepped up, you’re something special if you get That Thing.

(I’ll admit it: I still get that feeling about having a Porsche.)

The barriers between you and experientialism

Since it’s clear that experiences lead to more happiness than things, I think it’s useful to understand what these barriers are, these annoying hang-over habits from a century of materialistic consumerism. (OK, so it may not have really taken hold of your country till the 70s or even 80s, but the seed was planted back in the 1920s — see Stuffocation the book for that story.)

So I’ve been having a think, reading the scientific literature, talked with some psychologists — people like Tom Gilovich — and I think there are four key barriers stopping people from embracing experientialism.

  1. Habit
    Doh! Pretty obvious this. We’re creatures of habit. We have all those decades of materialistic consumer culture being ingrained into us. Materialistic consumer culture just is our culture.
  2. Advertising
    Just as our culture has been created by advertisers, the media, and government, so they have vested interests in our culture continuing. Change is not good for business, and possibly not good for the government’s tax receipts.
  3. Ease — material goods are less risky and require less imagination
    The magic with experiences is you never quite know what you’re going to get. The problem with experiences is you never quite know what you’re going to get. People like to be sure, to be in control, to know — and with material goods, you can hold them, touch them, see them. You know what you’re getting. Buying an experience requires more imagination than buying material goods. Compare going to see a movie with buying jeans: you can try the jeans on, but you don’t know if you’ll enjoy the movie. At least it’s only a two-hour commitment, so the downside isn’t so high. But what about a weekend away. Will you really like going to, say, Copenhagen? Will you really enjoy, say, your friends’ company?

    • This idea of ease is especially important in terms of the challenge of communicating the benefits beyond the innovators and the early adopters — who are already inclined to be risk-friendly. Most people are risk-averse, and will choose the less exciting, but safer option.
    • This idea of ease is also important in terms of convincing anyone who feels financially constrained. The lower your perception of your financial resources, the more you will avoid risky choices. So if there is low consumer confidence, in general, and if you perceive yourself as having less money, you will be more likely to choose the thing with less risk. The problem is, in our society, the way that popular culture puts people with material success on pedestals, and makes us play the “arms race of consumerism” (Robert Frank’s phrase), status anxiety is everywhere — so most people feel financially constrained. And, therefore, their default is to buy “safe” material goods rather than experiences.
  4. Miswanting
    This idea is from psychologist Dan Gilbert’s work. “Miswanting” appears in his bestselling book Stumbling Upon Happiness (and you can read about the idea here). People are especially likely to “miswant” material goods — because they believe that they will use them more than they will, they believe people will look at them differently if they have that thing. That if they have That Thing, they’ll get the girl, get the boy, get the job, people will look up to them more. But it simply isn’t true! (More on this in Geoffrey Miller’s genius book Spent (US)/ Must-Have (UK). Material goods do not deliver on these promises. If they did, we wouldn’t want any more. (This is the idea of consumer dissatisfaction (as spelled out in Tibor Scitovsky’s 1976 book The Joyless Economy), Instead, they let us down, so we go out and buy more. So, most times you “want” a material good, the chances are you “miswant” that material good.


I’d be fascinated to hear what you think of this idea. I think it’s something worth spending our time on. The more we can help people overcome these barriers, the more we can help people escape the crushing cage of materialistic consumerism, and set them free — to become experientialists.

Add your ideas in the comments below, share your thoughts on our Facebook.com/Stuffocation page, or email me: james@stuffocation.org.

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