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The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things

Experiences vs. things.

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Linda: When a person feels gratitude toward us, it has very little, if anything, to do with how much money we have spent on them. It’s possible that we can spend a lot of money and they still won’t feel given to. In fact, some people have the mistaken notion that if they buy a gift, that gets them off the hook and they don’t have to show up and pay attention to give of themselves.

Research from the positive psychology movement shows that kindness, attention, presence, adventure, and appreciation mean more to those who receive those gifts than material objects. This is especially important to know in these times of economic disruption: We don’t need to have the money to purchase gifts and that shift can bring a level of greater satisfaction than before.

Research in positive psychology states that an experience may generate positive memories that outlast the immediate thrill of new material possession. But the research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions. Experiences continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurs.

Happiness provided by new material possessions is short-lived. Over time, people’s satisfaction with the things they buy decreases, whereas their satisfaction with experiences over time increases in these ways:

  • Experiences provide stronger memories.
  • Experiences provide greater opportunity to connect with other people.
  • Experiences offer a greater opportunity for a person to “stay present” in a given moment. How present we are to an experience allows for greater happiness while we in the experience and afterward.
  • Experiences result in less comparison with others.

When we decide that we want to more heavily rely on experiences, we are challenged to tune in to others to find out what experiences they want to have. Of course, we can come right out and ask them, but there is another way: Rather than trying to find out from the other person what they might like, we can pay close attention and listen carefully as they speak, to ascertain what would delight them. And we can surprise them with some simple pleasures like taking them to a beautiful spot in nature or packing a picnic.

Listening attentively to figure out what would light them up is a gift in and of itself. It shows great generosity of spirit to tune into those we love and to listen carefully, so we know how to give our care to them. And for those of us who are with someone who is not as tuned in to us as we would like, it doesn’t cheapen the experience to ask for what we would like.

When we, as the receiver, have an experience that is disappointing, we may complain. But it’s important to find something in the gift to acknowledge. Just because it’s not what we had hoped for, it doesn’t require that we lie, but at the same time, we don’t have to dwell on what we don’t like. It’s a matter of choosing where we focus our attention. Being forgiving when they miss the mark is a gift that we offer to them. Clearing our disappointment when we can is an act of generosity at any given moment. Often feelings come in clusters, and we can have a mix of gratitude and disappointment. We have the power to choose where we focus our attention. If we make our best effort to clear the disappointment and it is still sticking to us, then we have to speak up. But the way we share our disappointment can make all the difference. We can use the sandwich approach, in which we bracket the darker part of a message between positive opening remarks and closing with gratitude.

If your partner enjoys gifts, by all means, be sure to show your love to them with material objects. But also remember that the gifts of our attention are the ones that bring the deepest, most lasting satisfaction. It is so worth our time and attention to see to it that our love is shown in this powerful and effective form.