Overlap Between Buying Experiences and Material Goods

I’m taking a Coursera/Yale class on happiness called The Science of Well-Being. It covers the lies our brains tell us about what will make us happy and how to get around it. It’s loaded with good information. The major focus of the first video in week four is spending money on experiences will make you (and everyone around you) happier than purchasing material goods. I think there’s overlap between buying experiences and material goods in sense that some of the things you can purchase enable experiences.

The course discusses buying material goods such as cars, homes, fancy new tech toys, and the like. These are goods which are exciting to purchase but quickly become a regular part of everyday life. Experiences are things like vacations, concerts, etc, which last for a limited period of time. They’re too short for novelty to wear into boredom. We can’t just grow accustomed to the latter. They’re also more fun to talk about with friends, so they provide more happiness for longer.

However, some things enable new experiences by being owned. I’m gonna look at two examples here: needlework supplies and games.

Needlework Supplies

Halloween needlepoint kit

Yesterday, I went to my local needlepoint store, Twisted Stitches, which was having a sale. One of the things that was on sale was a kit for a witch hat with a couple of ghosts. The sale price was $75 dollars; it came with three canvases with art outlines drawn on them and 27 skeins/spools of different kinds of plain and specialty threads. That’s a really good deal*, but the important thing is why I felt dropping an unplanned $75 on this was worthwhile.

Although I haven’t talked about it on here yet, I’ve recently started digging into the world of needlepoint. I have dabbled in plastic canvas needlepoint in the past. However, there’s a much richer body of things that can be done on traditional canvas with art painted on it. There are a zillion kinds of stitches and many types of interesting thread to work in. Combining these leads to interesting textures and patterns, as with the ruff and feet of this chicken I’ve been working on:

needlepoint chicken

There’s much to explore and learn in this art form, which engages me for hours at a time. But it can’t be done without the right supplies. Buying the supplies is what enables me to stretch my creative muscles and play with textiles in interesting new ways.

*The threads included run from about $.50 to $6 per unit; if we assume an average of $3.50 each, that’s roughly $95 in thread alone. I don’t know what canvases with outlines drawn on them typically run. However, if these outlines were filled in with paint, I’d expect it to be at least $50 for the three pieces. Let’s say half that for outlines (I have no idea if that’s a good guess), so $25, and you get a total cost of $120. IIRC, the original full price of the kit was $115, so still a good deal even at full price.


The other category I routinely spend money on that I would stick in the overlap between buying experiences and material goods is games. This applies both to video games and tabletop ones.

There are two ways to buy video games these days: digital and physical copies. I generally prefer to buy digitally to reduce the number of items in my house. If something is on significant sale in physical only, I occasionally get a hard copy. Although I don’t generally have a sentimental connection to physical editions, I’m proud to have worked on VA-11 HALL-A and bought a physical Japanese copy on my recent BitSummit trip.

Japanese VA-aa HALL-A Switch physical copy

Buying physical copies for collection purposes is something that falls squarely into the trap the professor teaching the class discussed. However, I don’t think buying games inherently falls into that category. The thing I love about video games is the wide variety of experiences they offer, from epic norse father-son bonding stories like God of War (2018) to devilish, brightly-colored puzzles a la Snakebird. When I buy a game, I’m looking forward to playing it and seeing what new experience the game offers.

There’s a gray area here, too, though, with games as a service. Is Overwatch something you buy and get used to, providing less happiness over time? Or do the additon of new characters, maps, and modes keep it fresh? Is each new meta a new chance for a burst of increased happiness?

Tabletop games simply align more closely with needlework supplies. Buying a copy enables you and your friends or family to sit down and play a fun game together. That’s an experience. While you can play the same game over and over again, no two sessions will be alike. (Unless you’re choosing bad games and/or playing with robots who always behave the same.)


You can argue buying needlework supplies or video gamesis actually buying experiences, rather than buying materials that enable them. It’s a fine distinction, but one that deserves exploration given current minimalism trends. Yes, I’m paying money with the ultimate end of an experience in mind. However, I still end up with a growing pile of needlework supplies and a gradually lengthening video game backlog. I still end up with more stuff.

In general, I carefully consider if purchases are going to make my life better in the long run. I’ve moved a lot in my life, plan to move again, and prefer to not have too many things to lug around. However, I consistently spend money on video games and needlework supplies with no regrets. These things fall into the space where buying material goods and experiences overlap, and they can grant lasting happiness because of the doors they open.

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