Investing in Memories, Ocelot Edition

A recurring theme of recent happiness research is that when it comes to seeking pleasure, people should “buy experiences rather than things.” People are happier when they skip the shiny baubles (or new high heels) and do something memorable.

Over at the Atlantic, Garett Jones gives one economic explanation for this finding: memories are a durable good.

[M]emory, wholly intangible, is quite durable.

People often shrink from driving to a distant, promising restaurant, flying to a new country, trying a new sport–it’s a hassle, and the experience won’t last that long. That’s the wrong way to look at it. When you go bungee jumping, you’re not buying a brief experience: You’re buying a memory, one that might last even longer than a good pair of blue jeans.

Psych research seems to bear this out: People love looking forward to vacations, they don’t like the vacation that much while they’re on it, and then they love the memories. Most of the joy–the utility in econospeak–happens when you’re not having the experience. …

[P]eople treat memories somewhat like durables, but most of us could do a better job of it. Yes, it’ll be a hassle to find that riad in Marrakech when your GPS fails you, but complaining about it with your sibling years later will be a ton of fun. Get on with it.

A corollary: if memory really is a durable, then you should buy a lot of it when you’re young. That’ll give you more years to enjoy your purchase.

So it’s worth a bit of suffering to create some good memories, since the future lasts a lot longer than the present.

That’s good advice. But I can’t help thinking that people who are unhappy on vacation are doing it wrong. Then again, maybe my recollection is blurred by selective memory?

In any case, the little feline above is a great example of Garett’s thesis. Since I was a child, I had always wanted to see an ocelot in the wild. And last summer, Esther and I found one in Brazil. Our entire encounter lasted about 15 seconds and produced a couple of mediocre photos. But until my brain gives out, I will always cherish seeing the little critter.

P.S. About 20 years ago, I recall someone attributing the “memory is a durable good” idea to Milton Friedman. If anyone’s got a cite to that, please post in the comments.

P.P.S. Will Wilkinson also comments on Garett’s thesis.

8 thoughts on “Investing in Memories, Ocelot Edition”

  1. I bought a convertible, only a couple of weeks before I read some other blog post to the effect of “don’t buy things, buy experiences”. However, it all turned out well, because I’ve bought an unknowable number of days of driving with the top down and the wind in my hair — I feel like I got a real bargain.

  2. Good point. Sometimes you need a physical durable in order to get the memory durable. Certainly my nature explorations go better with binoculars and a camera. So maybe the right advice is to buy experiences or things that complement experiences, but not things that substitute for experiences.

  3. “So maybe the right advice is to buy experiences or things that complement experiences, but not things that substitute for experiences.”

    Why all the emphasis on buying? The best advice is likely that the greatest satisfaction is derived from *creating* experiences or things. This need not , and most often does not entail “buying” anything. I think this is consistent with the opening statement that emphasizes “doing”, not “buying”. Or, is “buying” economist speak for something other than taking money out of one’s wallet?

    1. A recurring theme in happiness research is that buying things makes people less happy, in the long run, than they expect. The implication, which feels right to me, is that people who are looking to spend money to give themselves enjoyment should therefore focus on experiences, not things (with the proviso about things that are complements to experiences). This is all perfectly consistent with the view that the best things in life are free, money-wise. It’s just advice about how to handle the money-spending part of your quest for fulfillment.

      1. Perhaps, but I still find the emphasis on “buying” somewhat disconcerting. This is, of course, rather subjective; however, I suspect that one of the best uses of money is to *buy* security, either for oneself, one’s offspring, or both. The reduction in stress and anxiety and perhaps the joy of giving that provides surely does count for some measure of happiness. That means not *buying* “things” or “experiences” one cannot afford but having some of that money in reserve “just in case”. There are thus (at least) three things competing for one’s money in the quest for happiness: 1) things; 2) experiences; and 3) savings.

  4. Perhaps the reason people don’t enjoy the vacation itself as much as the memories is that many people these days see their whole vacations through camcorders and the like. As I like to say, people don’t take vacations anymore; they take vacation documentaries.

  5. Bien qu’il voulait désespérément d’aller à l’école d’art, il a signé pour un apprentissage à Savile Row tailleur Anderson & Sheppard où, selon la légende, il a écrit des obscénités dans la doublure d’une veste destinée au prince de Galles.

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