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What Makes an Experience Life-Changing?

Three questions to ask before you embark on your next adventure


by Sarah Mahoney

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For a long time, psychologists have urged people to choose experiences over possessions, promising that a hiking trip or a creativity seminar will be more satisfying—and make you happier—than anything you can buy at the mall.

Recent research from San Francisco State University disputes that. And that may be especially true for those in midlife, who are using these experiences to ease into life change. For people who are more materialistic, buying enriching adventures may be a big disappointment.

Roughly a third of people are materialistic, says Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at SF State and co-author of the study, which he defines as those who spend more of their discretionary money on goods than services. “The bigger this gap, the more materialistic you are,” he says, adding that people become markedly less materialistic as they move through midlife. “The average 18-year-old spends 15.5 percent of their income on material items; the average 60-year-old spends 8.1.” (Curious about how materialistic you are and its bearing on happiness? Take some of the quizzes Howell and his colleagues have developed at Beyond The Purchase.)

The happiness disconnect occurs when people invest in experiences that don’t suit their personalities or objectives. “The best experiences are those that satisfy our needs for relatedness [getting along with others], competence [mastering a skill], and identity [expressing our true selves],” he says. Experiences chosen for other reasons, such as social pressure or the desire to impress others, are likely to be duds.

Before signing on for an experience that you hope will be life-changing, he urges people to ask themselves three questions:

1. Am I doing this for me, or for others?

2. Will I learn something valuable?

3. Will it bring me closer to my friends and family?

If the answer to all three is a no, it’s likely to be a disappointment

Photo Credit: Matthew Micah Wright/Getty