Novel Experientialism: The Science of Doing Differently

New experiences can have a powerful psychological effect, from increasing happiness to boosting creativity. And the best bit: their benefits needn’t cost a penny.

For some time now, the developed world has shown signs of slowing down. By that I don’t mean our days are becoming more relaxed, nor do I mean we’re becoming less cognitively agile (although the latter sometimes seems a strong possibility). Instead, I’m referring to a change in the pace of accumulation.

Whilst we are still accumulating material goods, some commentators have argued that we are reaching ‘peak stuff’. Research is increasingly showing that our consumption of material goods (as measured by things like consumption of water, paper, clothes and cars) is on the decrease, while consumption of experiential goods is on the rise.

In short, the developed world is shifting its attention to experiences. As James Wallman persuasively outlines in his book, Stuffocation (UK, US), our slow shift from materialism to experientialism is being helped along by the age of the internet. Social media has permitted the growth of experiences as accessible status indicators, which is all feeding into a sense of fear of missing out (FOMO).

On the whole, while this doesn’t sound healthy, our turning to experiences should be a good thing. Instead of spending hard-earned cash on temporary material wants, we’ll pursue positive experiences that endure for longer – many of which needn’t cost a penny.

But there’s a long way to go. There is an indication of change, but many minds must be persuaded. What we do and how we do it will determine the benefits of this change in the long run.

To this end, it’s worth exploring some of the research into this trend and what we can do to best capitalise on the benefits.

Why Experiences Make Us Happier Than Material Possessions

For some time now, the impact of experiential and material purchases on our wellbeing has been an established area of focus in psychology. Broadly put, psychology research has sought to understand whether experiences bring us more happiness than possessions, and if so, why.

In 2003, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich published research that pondered the first of these questions. They set out to understand sentiments on experiential and material purchases before, during and after purchase. The results were remarkably consistent.

Surveys showed that purchases with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience made participants feel happier than material purchases. Separate experiments then found that participants were happier when pondering and anticipating experiential purchases than material purchases. At all points of purchase, the results suggest experiences can be better for our wellbeing.

Subsequent research has reinforced these findings and moved to understand the whys. What is it about experiential purchases that impacts our wellbeing so much more positively?

#1: Experiences expose us to more social interactions

It is well established that increased social relations are associated with higher rates of wellbeing, and there is even research suggesting social relations are a solid predictor of longevity. Experiences, of course, almost inevitably expose us to a higher rate of social interaction than material purchases. Gilovich and his colleagues at Cornell University identified this social aspect as one of the key reasons for the experiential happiness advantage.

#2: Experiences form a bigger part of our identity

Studies have found that experiences tend to be more closely associated with the self than possessions. For example, when telling our life stories, we’re far more likely to mention our experiences than the size of our house or model of our car. Research also suggests that by knowing about a person’s experiences we yield greater insight into their identity.

#3: Experiences make more interesting conversation

This leads into the idea that experiences simply better connect people with each other’s identities than material purchases. Experiences can be retold and positively reinterpreted. Their retelling brings us closer to people. This is reinforced by psychology research which suggests that we talk more about our experiences and get more value from doing so.

#4: Experiences are harder to compare

Comparing a house with a neighbour, a car with a colleague or a TV with a friend is an all too easy trap. What we see is what we compare. Experiences, on the other hand, are much more ambiguous. Their characteristic scarcity makes them more difficult to compare at face value. This, researchers are suggesting, is one of the primary reasons for the relative effects of experiences on happiness. While we face unique opportunities to compare on social media, we are less able to form like-for-like comparisons. The result is that we’re happier for it.

#5: Experiences are less prone to hedonic adaptation

When we make purchases, we often experience a bump in our happiness levels. With material purchases, this bump is prone to a short life. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. With experiences, because they provide a more enduring sense of happiness after the event, they tend be less prone to this psychological effect. Researchers have identified this counterforce to hedonic adaptation as another potential explanation for the effect of experiences on wellbeing.

What’s the Delay?

With the well-established benefits of experiences, it’s a wonder why the developed world isn’t turning its back on materialism more rapidly. Of course, we face the potent effects of advertising and day-to-day comparisons from all angles. And despite a lot of the research merely proving what most of us already suspected, most of us probably aren’t aware of this growing academic field of focus.

But as a personal finance blogger, I’m inclined to think a huge contributor is cynicism over costs. When we hear a story of someone who travels 15 times a year because they are pursuing a life of minimalism and experientialism instead of a life of materialism, it simply rubs us up the wrong way. Being minimalist will not instantaneously create the wealth required to afford such a lifestyle. There is almost always more to such stories.

Instead, what caught my eye as an inveterate self-improver is the role of the novel. Research suggests that simple changes to our daily experiences can have remarkable effects on creativity and productivity.

If the happiness case is not enough to encourage you to make some changes, perhaps the creativity case will be.

How Novel Experiences Can Boost Creativity

Back in 2012, a group of psychology researchers sought to test the idea that novel experiences could boost creativity. How did they intend to do this? Virtual reality and sandwiches, of course!

First, they had participants walk through a canteen in virtual reality, experiencing a range of unusual and unexpected events. A control group of participants then walked through the canteen while seeing a normal range of experiences. Second, they had two groups prepare sandwiches. One group prepared sandwiches in the normal order, and the other group made the sandwich in an unusual order.

Participants completed a cognitive flexibility test after engaging in these activities. In both cases, those that had engaged in the novel experiences performed better on the test.

The results show that novel experiences, of all shapes and sizes, may enhance creativity levels. Neuroscience suggests this is because such activities activate neural connections that we don’t often use and therefore stimulate ‘divergent thinking’. In fact, further psychology research suggests that even an increased openness to new experiences has a strong association with enhanced creativity.

A Financially Practical Path

The real importance of this research is it demonstrates that small experiential changes may have profound effects on creativity and productivity. That means that while travelling 15 times a year would do wonders, it’s not the only option for those of us confined by financial reality. Subtle changes to our daily routines can have potent effects on our mindset.

Call it novel experientialism, if you will. It means that while turning away from materialism towards minimalism, we actively seek out new experiences instead. Research, as we now know, suggests that this might make us happier and more creative.

And our new experiences needn’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, the novel needn’t cost a penny. The lesson I take from the growing body of psychology research on experiences is that the pursuit of financial independence and experientialism can work effectively in tandem.

The benefits begin by doing something different. More of the same routines, conversations and habits rarely equate to more ideas.

So change something. If you want to think differently, start by doing differently.

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