Experience is the Best?

College students were asked to recall the last time they spent over 100 dollars on either an experiential purchase or a material purchase. Then they asked them about their satisfaction with the purchase to figure out which brought (more) lasting happiness. The conclusion was that the experiential purchase made people happier, but I’m not so sure.
There’s an issue I have with studies like this (ie self reporting) because they bring up the problem of “true” happiness. Let’s say you spend a lot of money on a trip to a beautiful nature reserve in Suriname. But bam, you get sick on the first day. You power through and hike so you don’t waste the opportunity, or the money, but it’s rough. The sights are lovely but you feel terrible the whole time. The next day you feel a bit better but realize you stubbed your toe pretty hard on the hike yesterday and have a pronounced limp. Again, you power through and see more sights, but every other step hurts. You wake up with a stronger toe, but after walking with a limp for a day, your other leg is almost unusable. Because of your limp you made the “good” leg work harder and used muscles you don’t normally use to make up for the change in gait. This day you take it pretty easy, but the muscles ache any time you move and your head still hurts from being sick and your toe is still a tiny bit swollen… etc.
When you return from a trip like that you have a million stories and they sound awesome. “I was coughing and sneezing and my head was pounding but it wasn’t so bad. I was able to get through it and hike up the side of a mountain and see miles and miles of beautiful forest.” It’s a similar story for working through the limp.
I was thinking we might misremember exactly how much fun we had for a number of reasons. The first might be money. Who wants to feel like the wasted all the money they spent for the experience?

The more relevant reason might be the retrospective impact bias. We overestimate the impact of past events in specific ways. I’m sure everyone has caught themselves looking at some aspect of their past with rose-tinted glasses. If we are having a particularly bad day, we might remember our vacation being quite nice. The terrible pain is pushed out of our mind and we think of how awesome it was compared to the drudgery of daily life. Remember the sights? (not the migraine). Remember the hike? (not the painful limp). That was an amazing experience (minus the throwing up)!

But here comes the twist. Does it matter? If we remember a great vacation even when it was a pain in the ass, which is real? Memory is sort of messy like that. If you really think something happened, then it did (to you). If you think you’re trip was amazing, people would have a hard time convincing you otherwise. I’ll be a horrible scientist for a second (and most of my life, really) and talk about a personal experience to argue it does matter.

Last year, a friend and I went to visit some other friends across the state. The trip was good… but not completely. There was the 14 hours in a car. LA traffic. Lack of sleep. Etc. It was almost as tiring and stressful as work or finals week. On top of that her cat was sick when we got back. Fast forward to last month and we went on another trip, with a little hesitation on my side. (It wasn’t great hindsight on my end, I was just tired already and not in the mood.) Again, the trip was okay but the same issues came up. And she went through them as if they were new. She basically didn’t remember the bad parts from last year.

Fuck it, I’m tired.

tl;dr – We don’t always know what our experiences were, but does it matter? Sort of. It’s hard to accurately plan for the future if you don’t know how you feel about the past. (Sorry for misusing some words, it’s hard to write straightforward, easy to understand sentences without simplifying.) So should you go on a similar vacation? Maybe not.

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Experience is the Best?

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