That Thing You Do:Can Material Objects Make You Happy?


Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing.

-- Oscar Wilde

My rollerskates, a microphone, a book (made of real paper) -- these are a few things that make me really happy. Does that make me materialistic?

What if I’d listed a convertible, a plasma TV, and some diamond earrings? Would that change your answer?

The old adage tell us that you can’t buy happiness. And study after study informs us that a focus on “materialism” and the having of things doesn’t correlate with contentment and well-being. And while I don’t disagree, I think that argument is somewhat incomplete.

I recently listened to the NPR podcast “Stuff You Should Know,” on which they explored whether objects or things make us happier.  The hosts recall Sartre, who in Being in Nothingness, posits that that which makes us happy falls into three categories: having, doing, and being. [Spoiler alert: Jean-Paul favors doing.]

Not to go down an existential rabbit hole, but can we really separate things from experiences? Most experiences are not completely objectless -- in fact, many of them center on or rely on an object (sports, cooking/eating, reading).  They are complementary: things facilitate and enable the accumulation of experiences.

mastercard-priceless-gloves-small-51208 (1)And perhaps no one believes this more than Mastercard, who -- for 17 years running -- has been reminding us that “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else -- there’s Mastercard.” Mastercard promises to serve as the means to helping you acquire “once-in-a-lifetime experiences” (personal credit score and relative spending limit aside). Yes, it’s a clever ad campaign, but is there some truth to it?

Think of the iconic events we mark and celebrate: coming of age, weddings, births -- and then think of how we commemorate those events.  Even in the most modest of circumstances, these monumental life events are marked largely via the purchase, exchange, and ceremonial presentation of objects.

And objects of significance aren’t relegated exclusively to life’s big moments. The dress you wore on your first date with your husband. The watch you inherited from your grandfather. Your first car. Objects aren’t merely tied to experiences; they’re also wrapped up in emotion. The sight, touch, smell -- even the mere mental image of certain objects unleashes a flood of nostalgic feelings.

MVS2440-COMBO-114No one understands this better than J. Peterman, a company that has mastered the art of selling pseudo-nostalgia and the marketing of an aspirational self.  Take their description of The Irish Storytelling Sweater, for example: “No sleeves because, as any Irishman knows, to tell a good story you need your arms and hands free. Slip it on and you'll be more entertaining. Even fanciful.  Have an unquenchable thirst for Guinness. And you'll look good.” The image of the garment is really more of a sketch than a clear shot of what you’ll purchase, but its aesthetics are secondary.  If you care about what it looks like, you’re missing their point. They’re selling you the story. The experience of wearing it -- and the experiences you’ll have while wearing it. Not to mention the person you’ll consequently transform into.

Objects alone can’t make us happy. But they are powerful participants in life's experiences and in the making of a self and our relationships. I am reminded of O. Henry's classic story of the Gift of the Magi. The pocket watch; the combs; the sentimental sacrifice. An object is never just an object.

Which material possessions facilitate or remind you of experiences that make you happy?