Experiences are fleeting but memories last. It’s important to understand a bit about how memory works so that we can see my memories are so motivating.
Sensations and emotions are actually stored independently in your brain
As I introduced in the previous article the first and most important fact about memories is that they aren’t accurate, at least they aren’t anything like a literal recording of an experience. Scientists who study memory now think that memories about her past consist of a set of sensations and emotions that are linked together when necessary, such as when a member is formed and when that memory is brought to mind.
So your memory of going to Disney World as a young child might include the visual image of staring up at Cinderella’s Castle, the tactile sensation of holding her father’s hand, the noise of the street performers behind you and the intertwined emotions of awe and excitement. Those different sensations and emotions are actually stored independently in your brain. Visual features of a memory are stored in brain regions that support vision, tactile features are stored in brain regions that support touch and so on.
The act of successfully retrieving a memory
But, when a memory is retrieved your brain has access all those different components of a memory and to bind them together again into one coherent experience. The act of successfully retrieving a memory turns out to be extraordinarily rewarding. We like it when were prompted to remember an event from our past as we see an old vacation photo and then momentarily relive the time we walked next to a Venice canal at sunset. Think of how hypnotizing it can be to watch old photos rotate through a slideshow on the computer or television.
When we retrieve memories of our past our brain’s reward system becomes active in much the same way as when we win money or sip a glass of wine. Memories aren’t literal recordings of our experiences they change over time, they tend to become more positive. Think back to some vacation or some other trip which went camping hiking canoeing or you did something else outdoors. Most outdoor vacations combine both good and bad elements, roasting marshmallows is often followed by freezing in a cold tent, but our memories of those vacations do something amazing over time they change.
Memories have substantial and increasing value
The bad parts of the members the frustration delays cold are likely to fade away or they become more positive as we reinterpret an unpleasant experience into something that gives us a good story. And the positive parts those trips those remain and they get stronger as we remember them. In some ways our memories become better over time. By that I mean it not that they become more accurate I mean that they become more positive, they become better stories, they become more valuable.
This idea that memories have substantial and increasing value helps explain why experiential purchases generate such long-term happiness. Experiences generate memories. We enjoy retrieving those memories and re-experiencing the events from our past and those memories actually become more and more valued over time, but there’s an important caveat to raise: bad experiences are no better than bad material goods and a very bad experience can last longer in memory than a bad material purchase.
Many bad material purchases are simply worthless
Many bad material purchases are simply worthless, their negative features end when they are discarded. So it’s worth thinking about memory is something that extends our experiences in time. Good experiences become better as they last, but bad experiences disappear or change albeit slowly. Now let’s connect memory back directly to her economic choices. Do memories explain our satisfaction when we spend money on experiences?
In one study by the psychologist Tom Gilovich which and Travis Carter research participants were first asked to remember significant experiential or material purchase. They have made and then to describe their satisfaction with the purchase. After the participant described that purchase, maybe something like a beach trip or perhaps a new car they were given the following instructions:
“Imagine that you could go back in time for just an instant to make a different decision, choosing one of the alternatives instead and then come back to the present. All of your current members of that purchase would be replaced with new memories that were formed as a result of the different choice, but ultimately you arrived back at the same place and time right where you are now. Would you go back in time and switch all of your memories of your beach trip with new memories save a trip you didn’t take to the mountains? Would you do that? ”
Experiences generate more happiness and less regret
The participants were asked to rate how willing they would be to trade in their memories of that experience or of that material good. Consistent with everything I’ve described in this article, the participants were more satisfied with experiential purchases than material purchases, but that effect was driven by memory. The most satisfying purchases were those that generated memories that people wouldn’t give up. You wouldn’t give up the members for your last vacation of the last place you attended.
Most experiences are better than most material goods at generating memories and so people tended to find experiential purchases more satisfying. Let me emphasize this point because it might be a little counterintuitive: experiences generate more happiness and less regret, but it’s not because of the pleasure of the experience at that time, it’s because of the later memories the experience creates and over time our memories help define our identity.
We judge people by the experience that they seek
Suppose you are about to meet someone who would soon be entering your life it could be a blind date or new partner at work. What would you rather know about them? What kind of car they drive or where they last went on vacation? Most people prefer to know about other people’s experiences, they see those experiences as more revealing of someone’s true self. We judge people by the experience that they seek out. This preference is weaker and people who are more materialistic but it doesn’t go away.
Our experiences become part of us they define who we are and we can use knowledge of others experiences to judge them. Prioritizing experiences over material goods is often a very good idea, in general once basic needs are met purchases of experiences lead to more immediate happiness, more satisfaction with those purchases and better memories. So there’s a really obvious recommendation here: spend more money on experiences. Go on that vacation, splurge on that Broadway show. But that’s not always possible.
You can’t spend all of your money on experiences and you shouldn’t try to. Material goods can certainly generate happiness at least under the right circumstances.