How much stuff is enough stuff? At what point should we worry a bit less about getting and spending and devote more time and energy to other things?

It may seem as though “how much is enough” is a very individual question. But it turns out that psychology has a good deal to offer us by way of an answer. Psychology has developed a pretty rich understanding of what it is that produces happiness. And for the most part, what produces happiness isn’t stuff. People thrive when they have a network of close relations to others and when they have meaningful work that they find engaging. Stuff just doesn’t do it. And one major reason stuff doesn’t do it is a pervasive phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation is just a fancy label for what we already know: “we get used to things”. The new car gets us all excited—for a while. But before long, it’s just our ride. The new iPhone is so enticing that we can’t keep our hands off it. But before long, it’s just another way for people we don’t want to hear from to lay responsibilities on us. There’s no denying that we get tremendous pleasure from the things we have. But the pleasure is disappointingly short-lived. And although this adaptation happens to us again and again, we never seem to learn to anticipate it.

Some have suggested that adaptation creates what might be called a hedonic treadmill. We run faster and faster, but don’t seem to get anywhere.

Why don’t we learn from past disappointments? One possibility has been suggested by economist Robert Frank. Frank has observed that often when we seek things, pleasure is beside the point. Sometimes, we seek things just to have a little bit more than our neighbours. We have a concern for status—for relative position. So even if the thrill of driving our BMW doesn’t last, the thrill of comparing it to our neighbour’s Corolla may. It may not make us feel very good about ourselves to acknowledge that we get pleasure from status, but we do.

What would we do if we stopped acquiring stuff? Here, too, research in psychology has something valuable to offer. It seems that most of us get more pleasure out of doing than out of having. Researchers have shown that “doing” satisfies us more than “having” does. In reflecting on the past or contemplating the future, people are happier when they have “experiences” on their minds than when they have “things” on their minds. Moreover, we don’t adapt to “doing” to the same degree that we adapt to “having”. The trip to the Aquarium, the hike up Table Mountain, the bike ride in the Winelands, the informal dinner with friends keep satisfying long after the BMW has stopped providing a thrill. And a great thing about at least some “doing” is that it doesn’t cost much money. The pleasures associated with our own acts of consumption tend to be short-lived. The pleasures derived from doing something for others linger.

There are several possible reasons why “doing” does more for us than “having”. First, though doing is just an episode in life, we continue to “consume” the things we do by remembering them. Second, doing is almost always social, and social relations are incredibly important to wellbeing.

“Doing” seems to constitute a more meaningful part of our personal identity than “having” does. As people age, “doing” seems increasingly to dominate “having” as a goal. This may be a key part of the “wisdom of aging,” and may help explain why in general, despite persistent aches and pains in recalcitrant body parts, older people are happier than younger ones.

The new car gets us all excited—for a while. But before long, it’s just our ride!

The lesson in all this research is that prioritising what we do over what we have will lead to greater satisfaction with our lives. When it comes to gifts, people should think seriously about giving something of themselves instead of buying gifts. Give the people you love the gift of time, doing something together you will both cherish. (Your teenage children may not consider this much of a gift, but your mother will.) Take your young children to the aquarium instead of shopping for the latest videogame. The gift you give will be remembered.

There is probably little written here that people don’t already know. However, the economic crisis of recent years may provide us with a unique opportunity to encourage people to recalibrate their aims and aspirations. For the foreseeable future, acquiring the means for buying things is going to be much more effortful than it was just a few short years ago. As Rahm Emanuel said when the financial crisis began, “we should never let a crisis go to waste.” Crises are opportunities for people to do big things. And the big things that we as individuals can do centre on reminding ourselves of what is really important and satisfying in our lives, and aiming to achieve those things instead of a BMW in our driveways.

Adapted from an article written by Barry Schwartz

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