April 22, 2020

Experiences vs Things

If you want the latest gadget to land on your doorstep, all you have to do is tap. It’s never been easier to accumulate stuff. But if ‘stuff’ makes us happy, why do we obsess over things that are Instagrammable? Why are so many people more interested in experiences rather than things?

Scientific research points increasingly toward neuroscience – namely a process known as habituation. When we buy something new, we feel a rush of dopamine. Once we get used to the object, its novelty wears off. It becomes just another item in a drawer. If we want that hit of dopamine, we need to buy something else.

Experiences don’t work like that. They light up the reward centres of the brain, yes – but they also expand and strengthen the neural pathways related to rewards. That’s why climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is more meaningful than acquiring the newest set of cordless earphones. Our identity – and our deepest sense of satisfaction – is formed by the things we do, not the stuff we buy.

One of the most powerful examples of this phenomenon is the act of giving. It’s powerful because we don’t have to visit faraway lands to do it. Giving a charitable contribution, offering to drive a friend to the doctor, or even just a smile will activate healthy reward circuitry in the brain.

A recipe for happiness

It’s strange to think that something as ethereal as happiness could be described in terms of a chemical formula, yet neurology has done just that.

  • Dopamine is a reward chemical. It gets released when we pursue and achieve goals. When social media and tech companies send us an endless stream of notifications, they are cashing in on dopamine.
  • Oxytocin is a bonding chemical. It spikes during romantic attachment. When we’re apart from our beloved, oxytocin decreases and makes us long to be with that person. Hence the saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
  • Serotonin is a confidence chemical. It makes us feel less sensitive to rejection and more confident in ourselves. It also makes us feel like we’re a part of something bigger. Many common anti-depressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, try to make the brain to produce more serotonin.

To illustrate the effects of this happiness cocktail, people who had just finished participating in acts of volunteering and social support were subjected to MRI scans. The scans showed increased activity in the ventral striatum of the brain, an area which has been correlated to acts of kindness or altruism.

Even more interesting are the reactions not produced by altruism. People in the study showed a decrease in brain activity in the amygdala, which is a small area of the brain that processes emotions. We know that the amygdala sends stress signals to the brain, and is related to the fight-or-flight instinct.

Finally, a 2017 study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that helping others regulate their emotions – for instance, talking a close friend through a breakup – helps us to regulate our own emotions. From an emotional health perspective, giving is a kind of receiving.

The power of giving is clear

After a while, the academic studies all begin to sound the same. It’s important that we seek objective evidence of the power of giving. It’s important to understand what happens in terms of specific brain chemicals, and strive for a deeper scientific explanation of the power of giving.

In the end, statistics observations give us a stronger sense of what we know intrinsically. Of all the things we can do to catch a buzz, giving of ourselves, and believing in the social power of our actions, is unlike anything else.