Does less stuff make you happier?

Even though it’s more than fifteen years ago now, I’ll never forget the day my grandad died. My father had brought Nanna and Grandad, Jack and Pam, over for Sunday lunch. We talked about the past - the days out we’d had on London’s red buses, the holiday when Grandad got everyone lost in Lisbon. We talked about the future - especially my plans for success.

Before they left, Jack handed me a note.

"27-1-2002," it read. "This date in 1940 Nanna & I tramped through snow to our first home. Memories live longer than dreams. Good Luck."

Ten minutes later, as my father was driving, Jack gasped and slumped. His aorta had burst. My father roared through traffic, jumped the lights, got pulled over, and then a police escort to the nearest hospital. He tried his best, but Jack died that day.

I've thought a lot about that note since then. Did Grandad know he was going to die? And what did he mean by "memories live longer than dreams"? Did he mean that the past is more important than the future? Or that material dreams have their place, but that life is made up of memories, which come from experiences?

That’s what I’ve come to believe. Whatever he meant, though, it was quite a parting shot - to give advice on the most important question a person can ask: how should we live in order to be happy?

In the 21st century, I think the answer lies in the ancient wisdom in my Granddad's note - that what matters in life isn't the stuff you gather but the experiences you have. There's never been a more critical time for us to embrace this idea because it's a truth many forgot.

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In the 20th century, as a result of materialism and the consumer revolution, we were like mechanical rabbits, mesmerized by the headlights of a million consumer goods and the promise of higher standards of living.

The result is a consumer culture where we are too focused on stuff and we have too much stuff. So much stuff, in fact, that I can self-publish a book called Stuffocation and instead of people laughing at me for making up a silly word, they get it instantly. Then, Penguin take the book on, Steve Wright and Chris Evans have me on their radio and TV shows, and it becomes a bestseller.

Read: Can introducing the Swedish concept of 'fika' improve happiness at work?

If we all just had lots of stuff, and there were no consequences, it wouldn’t matter so much. But the inconvenient truth is that materialism is bad for the planet, it’s bad for society, and it’s bad for every single one of us. It heightens inequality, and it’s making us anxious, stressed and depressed in shocking, record numbers.

So we should embrace the wisdom in my Grandad’s note - not just because he wrote it, but because science has now proved him right. Leading psychologists like Tom Gilovich, Elizabeth Dunn, and Dan Gilbert - who’ve written books like Happy Money and Stumbling Upon Happiness - have shown that experiences are more likely than material goods to make us happy. 

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There’s another, and in my view, even more important reason, to spend less on stuff and more on experiences instead, that is, to become less materialistic and choose "experientialism" instead.

Experientialism is not only good for me and you and our parents and our children. It’s good for everyone else too. It’s good for the environment. Less stuff means less pollution.

And it’s good for inequality. The comparison between experiences is fuzzier than it is with material goods, so experientialists are less conscious of their status, and less likely to suffer from status anxiety compared with materialistic people.

So, this emerging experientialism will improve wellbeing, have a positive impact on the environment, and lessen inequality. Just as materialism transformed standards of living in the 20th century, so I believe experientialism will transform quality of life in the 21st century.

So, next time you catch yourself spending time and money on more stuff you don't need - STOP!

Think back to what my Grandad Jack said, and what science has proved - that experiences will give you more stories, status and happiness.

Don’t be materialistic. Instead, be an experientialist. Spend as much of your focus, time and money on memory-making, happiness-bringing, conversation-creating experiences.

If you want to embrace the idea of spending your time and money on experiences over stuff, why not head over to Virgin Experience Days and see what's on offer. Alternatively, spread the happiness and get someone a special gift experience.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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