We are, from a young age, subliminally initiated into the American capitalist system, one that correlates satisfaction and happiness with material possession. Buy a Diet Coke, open it, sip, and sigh in relaxation. But intermixed with the commercials for gadgets, gizmos and soda pop are the images of sandy beaches and romantic urban skylines, and those, it turns out, are the real gateways to happiness.
An article from Time’s online blog, “Moneyland,” from last week suggests and evidences that money spent on a vacation — spent, in a sense, on life experience — provides enduring satisfaction. Time suggests that the memories, stories, and images that linger from a vacation shape our sense of who we are. And, because those memories are yours and yours alone, no one can take them from you.
Several theories explain the disparate worth of money spent on goods versus vacation. The endowment effect, which says we value items more highly if they are ours than otherwise, might have an added impact because the memories of vacation are ours and uniquely ours. Even if a friend travels to the same get-a-way locale, the experience is very different.
Vacation, in that sense, is free from comparison, unlike nearly every other purchase we make.
Because we are social beings, we instinctively compare ourselves to others, an often-limiting practice. We compare cars, clothes, phones, computers, books, everything, making both upward social comparisons – comparing ourselves to those “above” us on the socially-fabricated scale – and downward social comparisons – comparing ourselves to those “below.” (If you’ve watched any reality TV in the last 10 years, chances are you understand the appeal of downward social comparisons.)
Travel offers a substantial break from the comparison: no vacation or trip is truly better than another; perhaps more luxurious, more exotic, more expensive, but never better. Just different. It follows that you’re apt to be more satisfied in a scenario like this.
The truth is, we’re not very good at predicting our emotions, what psychologists call “affective forecasting.” We may associate a trip or vacation with stress related to planning, packing, traveling, navigating, etc… while a quick, celebratory, self-rewarding purchase means immediate, pain-free gratification and reward.
But, the truth is, whatever excitement we garner from the material possession will fade as planned obsolescence renders our latest purchase unfashionable in a matter of months as we see friends, family members, and strangers alike brandishing their recently acquired replicas in our faces.
If you’re considering spending a chunk of your savings on a family gift or family experience, make it a vacation: a road trip across the country, a tropical get-a-way, or an icy excursion North. You might fear the money spent will leave you with less to show for it, but that money will continue to give as long as the memories last, unlike that new tablet device, bound to go haywire days after the warranty expires.
Photo: Carnival King 08