When considering what to do with our spare money, a common debate arises both in our home and in society more generally: should we invest our money in things or in experiences? The catch cry of the travel and recreation industry in recent years has been that experiences are investments in happiness that last, while things are not really all that important. Of course, conversely, the consumer goods industry champions the opposite message. Things, they tell us, are the path to prestige, adventure, and success. But where does the truth lie?
Like most things in life, to answer this question, we need to reduce the question to its most basic form. Cutting away the dross and exploring the real point of contention. In the case of the debate of experiences vs. things, this question seems to be one of value and, in particular, the meaning of success. The experience camp suggests that travel, adventure, and the exotic provide benefits that are unattainable every day and fulfil needs that are unable to be met by objects. But what are these benefits?
Travel or adventure tourism purport to offer pleasure, a certain renown stemming from being well-travelled and a way of signalling success, measured not by material goods but by the sum of experiences, which, of course, require material goods to acquire. These benefits are suspiciously similar to those claimed by the consumer goods industry, which also claims that its products will offer you pleasure, renown for having good taste and the ability to signal your success through the possession of prestigious objects.
In both cases, success is implicitly measured in monetary terms. With travel and experiences, the connection is shrouded in an anti-materialist shroud. Yet in real terms, both consumer goods and experiences are simply products sold to us with the promise of happiness. So, which should we choose?
In truth, both have their place in our lives yet neither has the importance attributed to them by the advertisers. Material goods can be useful just as experiences can teach us important lessons, yet neither is sufficient for success or more than the most fleeting happiness. I am sure that you will have experienced this for yourself when you have brought a new car or house or booked a holiday. From when you have made the decision to spend the money, you begin to fixate on how great it will be. But when you finally go on 'the holiday' or pick up the keys to your new house or car, you discover that while they are good, they are not truly life-changing like you hoped they would be. Within a few weeks, that old dissatisfaction creeps back in and you start looking for the next thing, which you tell yourself will finally scratch that itch.
The truth is, neither things nor experiences can ever do more than provide temporary relief from desire. The more you seek to satiate your wants, the more you will want. This is also the curse of success. I had a fairly rough childhood, and by fourteen, I was out on my own. As I started from nothing, I was driven to succeed. As the years went by and I achieved each of my goals, I started to notice something strange. The more I succeeded, the less the pleasure I took in the victories. Instead of being thrilled when I was promoted, or proud when I finished university or overjoyed when I brought a house, I was left feeling flat.
Eventually, I realised that success was an enigma. We start out with modest aims. Success, we believe, will be ours when we surmount the peak. On mounting the first peak, we glimpse another peak just ahead, and so we rush onwards, but each time, after superhuman efforts, we reach what we take to be the peak and another peak appears. Instead of finding the final happiness we expect, we find just another hill to climb. This exhausting experience is always the same so long as we measure success by fame, respect, money, or power. This is because these things are false goods.
The more we pursue these empty vessels, the more exhausted we become. We attempt to revive ourselves by tasting what we are told are the fruits of success and purchasing expensive objects or buying exotic experiences. Yet as with achievements themselves, the highs from these rewards quickly diminish. Freedom and happiness come only when we realise that these things are meaningless. How rich you are, what position in society you hold, etc. does not really matter. What matters is whether your family is thriving or not.
It is pleasant to have money, to be respected and to have power and position, but if these things come at the cost of your family’s welfare, then they are not worth it. This is a mistake that many of us make. We think that if we were to be more successful at work, we could provide a better life for our families. Yet, too often, we end up sacrificing the good life we could have provided by being too tired or busy to spend quality time with our families.
So, instead of choosing things or experiences for themselves, choose to focus on your family and community. Invest in things that will truly benefit them and you, not things whose value lies only in being able to brag to others about your success. Just remember the new car will become old, the holiday will fade to memory, but your family is forever.
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