Great Experiences Boost Happiness

person on mountain
The past year has been heavy. Investing my time and money in some fun experiences has paid off in greater happiness and better mental health.

One Memorial Day weekend when I was in my 20s, my friend Heidi and I had the wild idea to drive from Colorado to Rapid City, South Dakota, to see Mount Rushmore. Neither of us had seen the iconic monument before, and we thought a road trip seemed like a perfect use of our three-day weekend. We set out early Saturday morning, drove eight hours and checked into a hotel we had secured on Priceline.

The next day, we did the tourist thing at Mount Rushmore. The sky was overcast as we took the pathway of stairs to the viewing area. We admired the impressive sculpture of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — carved into the mountain and surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills. I had grown up seeing the image in books and magazines, so it was awesome to see it in person. Heidi snapped a picture of me leaning against the observation railing with Mount Rushmore in the background.

Back at the hotel, we swam in the indoor swimming pool, then dressed up and ate dinner in the hotel restaurant. For two 20-something single women, it felt terribly adventurous and decadent. The next morning, we hopped back into the car and drove the eight hours home across mostly flat and dry terrain. It hadn’t been the most practical trip, but we had made an incredible memory together.

Chasing experiences

Multiple studies conducted during the past decade have found that people gain more happiness from spending money on experiences than on material possessions. One article puts it this way:

Plenty of recent research has shown that people tend to derive more happiness from spending their money on experiences, such as travel and entertainment, than on things, such as clothing and gadgets.

But are people happier during the purchased experience itself? Or does the happiness derive more from anticipating or remembering the experience?

The answer, at least according to one study, is that experiences are greater than stuff, not only for the happiness they provide through anticipation and remembrance, but also in terms of in-the-moment enjoyment. You know, that boost of well-being.

As a single woman I remember feeling conflicted about spending money on experiences. I hoped to be married someday, and I wondered if I should be more practical with my finances (save more for my future) or wait until I was married to travel or splurge on the special vacation. I’m thankful that in many cases, I chose experiences over stuff. I wrote about this in “My Impractical Single Life”:

I have always been a practical person. Whether it’s a life decision, a major purchase or a way of spending my time, I weigh the pros and cons and choose what’s reasonable. But something I’ve learned over the years is sometimes it’s the impractical things that make life worth living.

When I look back on the many experiences I chose to invest in during my single years, both free and costly, they provide some of my most cherished memories.

Living well in trying times

This past year, I have seen and understood even more clearly the positive impact of experiences. With pandemic regulations shutting down travel opportunities, theaters, restaurants, churches and other places where experiences are typically found, those activities I have been able to engage in seem even more meaningful and life-giving.

In the new year, I started taking a socially distanced walk with some friends every Saturday morning. (We end our walk at a coffee shop to get a freshly brewed cup.) Once a week, I participate in our church’s outdoor ministry to sixth graders. The chill on my cheeks, singing worship al fresco, and the noise and laughter produced by those awesome students makes me feel alive. And this past Saturday afternoon, my family made the late-breaking decision to drive two hours to the beach just to watch the sunset. Each of these things requires an investment of time or money, but all are good for the soul.

Wise Solomon wrote, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). For me, the past year has at times been heavy. Investing my time and money in some fun experiences has paid off in greater happiness and better mental health.

So, if you’re feeling down, get out (if you can), enjoy some beauty and fun and good food. Live a little — it’s God’s gift to you.

Copyright 2021 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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