A new study has recently caught the fancy of psychology journalists and is being touted as a support for renewed materialistic attitudes.

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff'...

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff’s head and left arm are Brahminy Kites; the larger bird on his right arm is a young White-bellied Sea-eagle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a well known finding in psychology that experiential purchases, or experiences, are better for your happiness than material purchases, or possessions.

However, the picture, as always, is more nuanced and complicated. For starters, happiness means all things to all people, and is likely to be multi- dimensional. Secondly, a sole focus on material or experiential ‘purchases’ detracts from other useful ways of thinking about happiness, say in thinking that happiness can also arise from gifting or helping others.

Before we go further, I would like to break down happiness into its components. Happiness/ well-being, has been traditionally conceived as made up of three components that are measured separately. The first is an absence of negative emotions; the second is a presence of positive emotions and finally the third is satisfaction with life.

Now some of you may be wondering why we need to differentiate between a lack of negative emotions and a presence of positive emotions; if that’s you go back to positive psychology 101 tenet no. 1: negative emotions and positive emotions are separate constructs and an absence of one doesn’t guarantee the presence of the other.

It has also been found that for e.g. money has a different relationship to these; if your income is below a certain level you are likely to have a lot of struggle and negative emotions; beyond a certain income you don’t derive as much positive emotions as you should with increasing income and the line flattens, and finally measures of life satisfaction are more closely correlated with accumulated wealth than are measures of positive/ negative emotions.

The components are also measured differently; while life satisfaction can be reliably gauged from self report survey, a better measure of positive/ negative emotions are achieved by the experience sampling method.

To me, this break-up of well-being into negative emotions, positive emotions and life satisfaction seems incomplete and I propose adding another component to the mix: life outlook.

Life outlook, is how excited you are about the possibilities of the future, and in your ability to make your dreams come true; it is future oriented, unlike life satisfaction which is past oriented; though like life satisfaction, I believe, it can be reliably measured by self-report method. This involves an attitude of looking forward to whatever life has to offer; to be truly considered ‘happy’ one should be hopeful and optimistic, rather than resigned or pessimistic.

So well-being= ‘presence of +ve emotions’ + ‘lack of -ve emotions’ + ‘life satisfaction’ + ‘+ve life outlook’

I now want to return to the experiential vs materialistic purchases. In my opinion, materialistic purchases are about our (extrinsic / socially conditioned) ‘wants’ while experiential purchases are about our (intrinsic) ‘needs’.

And that leads me to posit that perhaps there are different selves involved when we undergo an experiential consumption vs a materialistic consumption. I’ll call these experiential (or experiencing) self and materialistic (or material) self.

Also recall the distinction Daniel Kahneman makes between experiencing self and remembering self and add to the mix the homo prospectus (you can know more about Prospection here)  concept of Martin Seligman, which I will refer to as the Anticipatory self. So what do we get:

    1. Materialistic self: focused on fulfilling one’s wants; if wants are thwarted discomfort ensues, but if they are met, at best, you are in a state of hedonistic pleasure.  So you have a pleasure-discomfort polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘negative’ or unhelpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as less governed by this materialistic self as possible, because whether they be emotion of discomfort or emotions of lazy pleasure, they really serve no good. Acquiring material goods does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to have’ attitude.
    2. Experiential/ experienced self: focused on fulfilling one’s needs; if needs are not met, pain ensues (and that makes us focus on how we can meet the needs), while if needs are being met one is joyous and on cloud 9. So you have a joy-pain polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘positive’ or helpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as much governed by this experiential self as possible, because whether they be emotion of pain or joy  they really are serving immense good (pain for survival; joy for thriving via broaden and build) . Acquiring experiences does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to do’ attitude.
    3. Remembered self: focused on creating a coherent narrative about the self, if narrative is coherent and as per the image one wants to have of oneself, then contentment happens; else their is a sense of regret. The polarity is contentment-regret. And this is what perhaps would be the life satisfaction axis. It entails a ‘to be’ attitude.
    4. Prospective/ Anticipatory self: focused on creating new futures and possibilities, this is the prospective self. If the ideal self seems reachable and we are confident about attaining it, hope ensues; otherwise there is resignation to fate. So the polarity is hope-resignation and the axis is the life outlook axis. It entails a ‘to become’ attitude.

So whats the answer? Should we do or be, become or have; I think we need to indulge in all of these, in moderation, but ‘to become’ seems to be the best bet for your well being and flourishing!

Lastly, we know that material purchases impact our unhelpful emotions axis as well as our life satisfaction axis; while I guess experiential purchases will help our prospective self too in addition to our experienced self as its only via accumulated experiences that we become.  But I have a feeling that there may be other ways to increase life satisfaction and life outlook and would love to hear your thoughts on the same.

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