Another Reason Experiences are Better than Things: The Joy of Anticipation

The fact that the calendar flipped to March shocked us out of our winter hibernation this week. The approach of spring and summer is exciting. While we love winter, and the skiing, sledding, and snowballs it affords, we’re ready for the longer and warmer days ahead. Summer fun is around the corner, which made us realize that we need to kick our summer planning into gear.

Our twins are turning five this spring, so we’ve turned the corner on toddlerhood. This opens up a whole new world of opportunities in terms of fun and adventurous activities. There are no more naps, and those little legs are steadily getting longer and sturdier, so this summer we plan on pushing boundaries a bit more than we have in the past few years. We’re really excited about all of the new experiences that lie ahead.

Experiences Over Things

You’ve probably heard that experiences bring people more happiness than things. For example, a day at the beach leaves a more lasting positive impact than buying a new bathing suit.

The field of positive psychology has been studying this issue for years, and the conclusion is unanimous, which is that experiences matter more than material things when it comes to happiness.

Psychologists use the acronym “CAMPER” to describe the research-proven factors that contribute to happiness, which are Competence, Autonomy, Meaning, Pleasure, Engagement, and Relationships. Research shows that these “Happy CAMPER” factors are more likely to be realized from doing (experiences) rather than having (things).

Joyful Anticipatoin

As a family that has shifted from material consumerism to more experiential consumerism over the last several years, we can attest to the positive impact it has had on our wellbeing. We’re all in on new experiences.

Over the weekend we mapped out many of the things we want to do over the summer, and started blocking off our calendars and making reservations. We’ve found that by planning far in advance, we’re much more likely to carry through on what we set out to do. Otherwise time slips by, the summer gets busy, and the plans we conjured up in our heads don’t come to fruition. Some of these plans include camping trips to places we’ve never visited, exploration of new beaches, fun Life and Whim social gatherings in the Traverse City region, and a part business, part pleasure trip to New York City this spring.

It was fun and exciting to do this planning! We focused on activities that would constitute First Moments for our family. We’ve come to realize through this planning process that the anticipation of events and activities brings nearly as much joy as engaging in the events and activities themselves. We get to dream and brainstorm about things we’ll do, see, and learn. We know, based on past experience, that more often than not we meet interesting new people while trying interesting new things, and that these chance encounters frequently lead to meaningful new relationships. We read and research with our kids to learn about new places we’ll visit, and allow the kids to help set the agenda for what we’ll do. I’m sure you’ve done similar things while planning activities with friends and family. Hopefully you’ve experienced these simple joys as well.

It turns out that we’re not alone. Planning for new experiences brings pleasure; far more than planning to buy new things. {tweet that} This finding comes from doctoral student Matthew A. Killingsworth of the University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Francisco, and doctoral student Amit Kumar and psychology researcher Thomas Gilovich, both of Cornell University.

In a paper published in 2014, they found that people “think about future experiences in more abstract ways that can make them seem more significant and more gratifying.” In other words, our anticipation of an experience may be idealized, but it creates happiness nonetheless.

These conclusions are consistent with those from a 2010 study which found that vacationers experienced a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of a trip because they anticipated the fun to come. The study’s lead author, Jerome Nawijn, told The New York Times, “The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip.”

All of this is not to say that the best part of an experience is not the experience itself. There’s nothing like being immersed in the moment of an exciting First Moment. But there’s a great deal to be said (and studies to back it up) for being more intentional in planning First Moments. You may enjoy the uncertainty of spontaneity, but if you leave summer’s fun to chance, you’ll be missing out on months’ worth of happiness from the joys of anticipation.


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LifeJay Harrington