How to Make Past Experiences Meaningful

Recently, I attended a birthday party in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, we rented a cabana at a day-time pool party scene that supposedly is the place to see and be seen in Vegas during the day. We had a good time. The sun was out, the people watching was lively, the food and drink were flowing. It was fun, but also expensive and a bit overcrowded. When I left the party, I gave it a 6.5 out of 10 on the fun scale (taking into account the $$$ required to get in).

Then something interesting happened. Later that night, the group of guys on the trip assembled around the dining room table in the birthday boy’s hotel suite. While eating pizza, we spent 90 minutes informally sharing our memories of the day. “Remember when….?” “Wasn’t it crazy when….?” “Can you believe….?” “Check out this photo of….” We immortalized certain phrases and performed reenactments of key exchanges. Embellishment of detail served the larger mission of hilarity. “That one girl ate a lot of our chips” became “That girl who parked herself next to the bar and stuffed her face full of nachos.”

By the time the pizza boxes were emptied out, the pool party earlier in the afternoon seemed positively epic. I felt closer to the people with whom I had shared the experience. And those feelings persist today.

Happiness research is clear: buy experiences, not things. Experiences make us happy in part because experiences often generate vivid memories, and memories we can recall over and over with pleasure, whereas we quickly adapt to purchased goods like a new car or house.

At the birthday party I was reminded that buying experiences is a start, but we want those experiences to be meaningful. Humans crave meaning. And we will do what it takes — which includes deluding ourselves slightly — to assign meaning to the events in our lives.

One way to do this is through a social process of collective remembering. You can backdate meaning to experienced events by doing postmortems, debriefings, retellings, memory sharing.

So yes, buy experiences over things. (Preferably experiences involving other people.) And keep in mind that for those experiences that’ve already occurred, it’s not too late to make them meaningful: get a group of friends together, and walk down memory lane…

3 Responses to How to Make Past Experiences Meaningful

  1. vimspot says:

    This has serious implications for how people plan weddings. It’s incredible to me that people don’t plan for the following things at weddings:
    – afterparties. It’s a once in a lifetime collection of family high school, college, grad school people. Some people value fun over sleep and are willing to stay up until the crack of dawn seeking it. Make it easy for them. Ask the hotel that you booked 80 rooms in to give you one conference room where people can hang out. Let them know that if they don’t, people will probably try to party in rooms and guests will complain. They will often do this cheaply and sometimes for free. Have Pizza delivered, and have some beer there. This $100-200 investment will be have a way better return for your guests then flowers
    – Sunday Brunch. Making sunday brunch easy (read: in the hotel) and at a tolerable hour provides the opportunity for people to savor the memories (many of which will be made at the afterparty) of the night before

  2. It had to be another economist at George Mason University– Garrett Jones classifying memorable experience as a “consumer durable” reads like exquisite parody:

    “Most of the joy–the utility in econospeak–happens when you’re not having the experience.”

    Now if that isn’t exquisite bullshit, I don’t know what is.

    Only a psych research team of the freshwater school, like that University of Illinois team, could write this, without laughing: “these researchers demonstrated that retrospective accounts of affect are influenced primarily by the peak and final moment of on-line experience-with little regard to the duration, mean, or sum of that experience.”

    Most sensible people know intuitively that “the peak and final moment of… experience-with little regard to the duration, mean, or sum of that experience”, doesn’t happen on-line.

    It happens in bed.

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