The best things in life aren’t things

The best things in life aren't things

“The best things in life aren’t things.”


There are several variations on the quote “The best things in life aren’t things”. I quite like: “it’s what you do that matters, not what you have”. This is taken from James Wallman’s excellent book “Time and How to Spend It”. James Wallman states:

“Ticking along in life is fine … but are you ticking along too much? Have you been craving laid-back, luxury experiences – when really you should aim for challenging ones? Do you do enough things that are difficult but worthwhile?”

The above extract applies to me. I’ve been thinking for some time that I don’t get out and experience enough, I’m a creature of habit and need to change this about myself. The remainder of this post is a reinforcement of James Wallman’s thesis that the best way to live life is with experiences and not things.

Material wealth isn’t the answer

Alastair Humphreys refers to aimless consumption as “the race to the biggest headstone”. Although we receive a “bump” of happiness when buying something new, it’s temporary and we return to our previous baseline of happiness. This recurring revision to baseline happiness is referred to as hedonic adaptation by psychologists. For many, this means going back to the shops for the next fix in an endless treadmill of consumption.

Hedonic adaptation chart - the best things in life aren't things

There’s a well-publicised study with 3,362 lottery winners ($100K+) surveyed 5+ years after their win. The end conclusion was lottery winners are no happier following a monetary windfall.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer”

Jim Carrey

Variety is the spice of happiness

The reason for this constant retraction to baseline happiness (or contentment) is because whatever this new thing was, has now become the new normal. So if lottery wins, marriage and new cars only bring temporary happiness improvements …what’s the answer? According to the Oxford Handbook of Happiness: “variety is the spice of happiness”.

Variety (new experiences) can be used as a weapon against adaptation. There’s no fun in life when you know what’s around the corner. Therefore, mix things up, try new things, walk a different route, try yoga, watch a film you don’t think you’ll like at the cinema …the list goes on.

I find learning something new is one of the best ways of introducing variety. Don’t assume you’ll like or dislike anything until you’ve tried it. The benefits of learning are manifold, including the fact you become a more interesting person.

Zookeepers & enrichment

The primary aim of zoos (good ones anyway) is no longer to entertain the public. It’s about preservation, education and the welfare of animals. Life is easy for wild animals in the zoo. They are fed, protected from disease and have no fear of predators. Because of this animals live longer, however, those lives can be quite dull.

One of the primary tasks of zookeepers is to make their lives more interesting. This is achieved through “environmental enrichment”. Simply put this means varying the animal’s environment, everything from changing food to re-designing enclosures. Sometimes it’s as simple as moving trees or hiding food. Without this variance, the animals become stressed and bored, no different to humans.

The Butterfly Effect

This short video on The Butterfly Effect highlights how the smallest changes in your life can have a dramatic impact. More causes (experiences) will result in more effects (change) and just like the animals in a zoo, we need a varied life.

The best things in life aren’t things they are experiences

I’ve realised for some time that the best things in life aren’t things but I need to get out and experience them. I’m now actively making an effort to engage in new experiences. If you feel like you’re on a treadmill then maybe you should jump off too because the same routine can be life-numbing.

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