Scientists tell us that money alone doesn't make us happy—it's what we spend it on that matters. Although buying things can make us feel good for a while, buying an experience—like a vacation—tends to make us feel even better for a longer period of time. Why? Because we can take a much longer time planning it, and more importantly, we can savor the memory of the experience forever.
Planning a vacation begins with thinking about the occasion you want to have rather than the kind of satisfaction that comes from acquiring objects. Haven't you had this happen to you before? You thought those shoes, or that sweater, or those earrings would make you feel good for a longer time than they did?
Things tend to give us a boost when we first acquire them—but typically this fades once we've had them for a while. Materialists get caught in this trap. They will often put very high hopes on what a thing will help them feel only to become disappointed when it doesn't live up to their expectations. The emptiness is fueled by a cycle that begins with an unrealistically high expectation of what a new possession will bring.
Planning a vacation starts in a different place.
First, it typically isn't an impulse. So much of shopping for things has the emphasis on an urge or a whim. The immediacy of the purchase and payoff nudge us to the next desire. Thinking about what we would like to experience in planning a vacation ushers us into the future in a different way. We begin thinking about what we want to feel and what other experiences we want to have. The anticipated excitement generates good feelings now about the future. When we think about an upcoming break in this way our anticipated enjoyment pays off immediately—and draws that good feeling into the future.
Then there is the vacation experience itself. For most of us the occasion generates good feelings, even if it wasn't perfect; it provides a break in our routine because we're engaged in different activities than usual. We now have three features going into the payoff of feeling good: First we have the planning, followed by the anticipation, and then the actual holiday. The event has already given us more than what we would have gotten from buying some gadget or article of clothing.
The big payoff comes with our forever memories, photographs, recollections, and discussions. What comes after the vacation is savoring a positive rumination about what took place and the excitement that went into it. From the beginning plans to the savoring we create an extended time of feeling good. Rarely can the purchase of an object give us this kind of sustainable joy.
Of course, there are exceptions: The new car we've been waiting for, the unique piece of furniture we found in an antique shop—many things can repay us every time we encounter them. However, in general, our money is often better invested in experiences rather than belongings.
Ultimately, the distinction between what makes us happy and what doesn't tends to be about how much gratitude we have for something. If we buy an object and our gratitude for it fades rapidly, so will our sense of how pleased it makes us. We are inclined to give vacations a higher ranking on our gratitude list. In this way they tend to move to the top of our mind when we think about what we appreciate—and what brings us delight when we recall it.