Experience vs. staff – investing for happiness

Buying is good for you, but not all buying

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I must confess to loving shoes and beautiful clothes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not crazy about them, and my collection does not reach a hundred pairs of hills, but I will, now and again splash out on a new temptation. But that’s about it – I am not that bothered about bags or scarfs, and can last only about five minutes wondering about in a beauty shop – crèmes and make-up leave me bored to death, despite admitting to myself recently that I can probably no longer go without…I own one laptop and one telephone, both of which get replaced only when they about to die, do not get the point of an iPad (when I already have a laptop) or iPod, (when I can store the music on my telephone), whilst my interest in the progress of television technology had lasted up until around the time the TVs turned flat. So I guess (with the exception of shoes and clothes), I find myself caring less and less about stuff or “stuffocation”, to use the recent Psychologies term, yet more and more about experience.

Experience is a different game altogether. I love sharing a good meal, both at home or at a restaurant, and will always be tempted to choose whatever is new for me on the menu. My weirdest culinary experiments included not only every known kind of raw seafood, but also a chicken tartar – yes, it is possible to eat a chicken tartar served by specially certified Japanese restaurants, provided the chicken itself is incredibly fresh (we are talking hours here). I would never refuse a massage or a spa, in fact, will actively seek it out. Once the actively seeking out bit had brought me somewhere I can only describe as a bathhouse aqua park on the outskirts of Tokyo, where, surrounded by hundreds of locals, I slowly realized that I was the only (a) European, (b) sole, (c) 6 foot tall woman to be there… I love any shade of travelling – whether hours of air miles away or just to a new part of the same city. And given that my budget is not unlimited, the older I get, the more I find myself prioritising spending money on an experience vs. anything that one can buy and consequently keep. Just yesterday, faced with a six hours stopover in a Beijing airport on a way back from a work trip, I figured out how to get out without a visa (easy, provided you have an onwards boarding pass), find a driver (a lot more difficult because Chinese taxi drivers do not speak English) and travel out of the airport for an hour. I actually ended up getting a rather expensive chauffer driven car, just to make sure it was clear where I was going and at what time I had to be back. And here I was, standing on the Great Wall of China at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning with (almost) no tourist in sight, admiring the mountains and the 600 long years of history as far as I could see. What bag or even a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo could ever compete with that?

The delightful part of it all is that positive psychology research is in full agreement. A recent book by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton “Happy Money” shows clearly that spending money on the experience brings about a lot more happiness than spending it on stuff. So the next time you are tempted by a new fashion item, spend a minute wondering if this is the best investment for your own self.

Dr Ilona Boniwell

Strategic Programme Leader, MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and CEO, Positran, Positran and Anglia Ruskin University

Who am I? I suppose, the very first answer would be a “positive psychologist”, since all my career and professional achievements have something to do with this wonderful area of scholarship. I founded and headed the first Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) in Europe, created the European Network of Positive Psychology, organised the first European Congress of Positive Psychology (June 2002, Winchester), and was the first vice-chair of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Nowadays, I run the iMAPP, international MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, teach positive leadership at l’Ecole Centrale Paris (a top engineering school in France) and run Positran, a busy consultancy dedicated to achieving transformation through positive psychology. When it comes to my areas of expertise, I have quite a few passions: psychology of time, resilience, eudaimonic well-being and applications of positive psychology to oneself, leadership, coaching, parenting and education. I am the author or editor of six books (including Positive Psychology in a Nutshell and the Oxford Handbook of Happiness) and multiple academic and popular articles. My media work included BBC, Guardian, Times, Psychologies, Top Sante and Cosmopolitan. I am often invited to give keynote addresses to psychologists, coaches, and other professional audiences, including delivering a TEDx talk last year. Every year, I teach hundreds of leaders and mature students in the UK, France, Portugal, Singapore, Japan and many other countries across the world on how to use positive psychology in very real, tangible, nuts-and-bolts ways. Who am I personally? First of all, I am a wife and a mother or step-mother to five children (2, 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old). In fact, I progressed from having two to five children in the space of one year, so I had to really learn to walk the talk when it comes to positive parenting. Since last November, I've had the pleasure and the privilege to be a monthly Psychologies columnist, writing about the triumphs and challenges of running a large step-family; being friends with the ex-wife and negotiating educational expectations… I speak four languages, and can no longer clearly say where I am from (mixing Russian, Latvian, British and French origins and experiences). I have two cats and one dog, and I love ideas, making sense, creating something new from existing elements, and making tiny baby steps to changing the world towards something better.