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…

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