How Wanting is Often Better Than Having

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aaron_image1“If we were to gain God’s perspective, even for a moment, and were to look at the way we go through life accumulating and hoarding and displaying our things, we would have the same feelings of horror and pity that any sane person has when he views people in an asylum endlessly beating their heads against the wall.” ― Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity

Last year, I told you my worst money mistake happened when I bought a bright and shiny, slightly used Volkswagen Jetta with a 10% interest loan. The salesman had sold me on the idea of how cool I would look in the vehicle, driving my friends around. 

I remember wanting the overpriced, not-within-my-budget car so bad that I couldn’t even focus on another vehicle in the lot. I was smitten.

The car purchase was my first in a series of bad financial decisions that eventually put me over $40,000 in debt and in despair. Not only did the Jetta put me in the hole – but it failed to live up to expectations. It didn’t change my life and the thrill of owning such a fine piece of automobile eventually wore off and within months I was asking the dealer if they could take it back.

The owning myth

I recently stumbled on a series of articles on wanting and having that have really intrigued me. Most of these were precipitated by a June piece in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled, “When Wanting Is Better than Having: Materialism, Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process” (sadly you’ll have to pay $14 to read the whole thing).

And just this past Tuesday (June 11), the Atlantic addressed the issue with their own contribution: Why Wanting Expensive Things Makes Us So Much Happier Than Buying Them. Author Derek Thompson writes:

Happiness, for most people not named Sartre, is other people; and experiences are usually shared — first when they happen and then again and again when we tell our friends.

On the other hand, objects wears out their welcome. If you really love a rug, you might buy it. The first few times you see, you might admire it, and feel happy. But over time, it will probably reveal itself to be just a rug. Try to remember the last time an old piece of furniture made you ecstatic. For me, at least, it’s a difficult exercise. The wonder of my potted plants certainly wanes with time. “Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage,” Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness.

Thompson also notes how “retail therapy” helps people from time to time – not necessarily because they are buying things – but through the act of wanting and sharing the experience with others. Most of the satisfaction happens before the “checkout counter”.

Of course, all this is not new. We often experience this in our own lives. Planning the vacation can be more satisfying than the vacation itself. And, building and wanting the “dream” home is better than occupying it. All possessions’ lose their luster and fail to satisfy.

How this can change our own perspective on materialism

Don’t get me wrong. I drive by big homes and beautiful properties all the time and think, “wow – it sure would be nice to own that!”

But, to think more about this concept of wanting vs. having and to realize that often – with having –  comes responsibilities, bills and less freedom.

“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

I’m thankful I made a few bad decisions early on in my life, owned some things that were definite “wants” – only to realize they weren’t (in themselves) very satisfying.

Ultimately – it’s the experiences you have with those things you really cherish.

What do you think about this – and have you experienced this in your own life? How has this changed your perspective on consuming more and more?

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  1. liberty says:

    I just shop the second or third hand market and have my nice things for typically under $1. Flea markets, junk shops, yard sales, freebies.

  2. WOW, Aaron – terrific article. I was just reading on another blog an article about giving yourself/your family experiences, not things. IT’s SO time for America to start thinking about happiness in a way that assesses true happiness, not short-term instant gratification. We too used to be caught up in the acquiring of “stuff”, but now, being saddled under a boatload of debt, understand well the bondage of the stupid stuff we nickled and dimed ourselves into debt with, and hate it, as we work to get ourselves out. Having the freedom to make choices based on what’s important to yourself and your family, vs. making choices based on making sure you have enough cash to pay your creditors, is far more gratifying than any new and shiny anything could ever be, that’s for sure.

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