— Pratima H
Oh! You are so stingy!
That’s one line I have often been stonked with. The place and source of artillery varies – sometimes I come in the line of fire at a high-heeled shoe arcade and at other times the war zone happens to be a really haute-couture handbag Disneyland. In fact, the very line has also bruised me at a blue-blooded handicraft showroom, now that I recall precisely.
The allegation is not entirely wrong though. I don’t spend the way they do and have often fallen short of words when confronting a shopaholic friend, a plastic-money-endowed colleague, a complete stranger (and a complete Barbie Doll version of Corporate executive, at that), and once even a salesperson (yes, that happens with me).
Let me get clear about the exact reason of this drought of words which I never otherwise face on other occasions in life. There is something about euphemizing this line ‘What’s the point of being a gussied-up avatar of what I was (or the jeans was) yesterday by spending through my nose? Isn’t it the same scarf, a different colour? Same dog, different name?’
But as you would have guessed, uttering these words is like blasphemy in the company of people who worship style, fashion and err, consumerism. Plus, I am always against being judgmental. May be I do not understand their world.
So I have endured. Until last week, when Dan Ariely dawned from nowhere (well, a book shelf if you want details) with a refreshing torrent of arguments in my arid life.
I never thought reading ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ would supply me with the last laugh of sorts for all my future encounters in a shopping menagerie.
I never thought it this way – May be they don’t understand my world too. I also never paused and flipped back the bullets whenever I found them flinching when it came down to spending on an adventure park, on stupid balloons, on a lesson in some odd music genre or on an ‘eccentric but fun’ flight simulator training. Or on just trying some Ethiopian cuisine on the lark.
But then, I have also forgotten that I always had some partners in-crime.
Till we get to Ariely’s hypothesis, here’s how they have been living it up all this time.
Noahs in a world full of naysayers
Manoj Ramesh is a simple looking, innocent passer-by from the universe of genius geeks. But even though he inhabits the world of wonks as a successful and well-rooted IT industry professional from UK; there is more to him when he switches off that office monitor and swipes away merrily on his Friday roster. In his brief and work-heavy life in London, he has possibly been living like a duck. Everything is as usual on the surface, but beneath the water, the pair of webbed feet has been furiously busy swimming in new waters. They have paddled with force through almost every corner of the world – the weirdest museums, the largest stadiums, the iciest mountains, the deepest oceans and the scariest dance class.
You can never hear from him whiling his time at the same place again. I have been tempted to ask him “Why spending on experiences/adventures is more worthwhile/satisfying than spending on materialistic ware?”
And his answer has been quick, a matter-of-fact one showing his fast reflexes at this one too. He quotes Pat Conroy before he explains the mystery. “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Manoj dissects that everyone weighs the Pros and Cons when given a choice. “Questions from, ‘Is this worth it?’ to ‘Will it benefit me?’ almost seem to spring to one’s mind. When it comes to Adventure vs. Materialistic-ware, the answer to my mind is pretty obvious. Adventure/an Experience any day!” He almost screams.
Why, I drill the scalpel further. “An experience does not come with a price tag. A Car /Mobile Phone/Jacket comes with one. Adventures/Experiences come without a ‘Warranty/Guarantee Period’. Materialistic-ware unfortunately do, which are pretty limited. An adventure comes with memories. I can hardly remember of anything that I’ve purchased and said, Whoa! this is memorable.”
It’s not at all a lonely planet for mould-breakers and sunrise-chasers like him. Meet Anjaan, a world citizen employed currently as a Media Marketing-professional based in Dubai, UAE. He is soon starting his own boutique travel agency “hobbycations“. No wonder he is doing that because it is literally impossible to find him at one place ever. You call him expecting he would still be in that absolutely virgin island in Australia he went on raving endlessly about during the last conversation. But Ahoy! This time you find him tasting different ilks of beers in Ireland. And next time, his voice would be transmitted from somewhere in Japan where he would be probably busy with that new Martial Arts regime he just learnt about. Now I know where he gets all that never-ending material to entertain his fans when he is on air.
I ask Anjaan too about the choice he always makes between spending on a new shoe and spending on new tickets to use the old shoe instead; and he has wiped the mist by saying – One of the biggest life lessons you can learn as you travel is that ‘Time’ is the real currency you should be trying to spend wisely! Time is the one thing that’s limited in its nature and will not increase no matter how much you try. Your income can increase and your riches might double but you will always have only 24 hours in a day.”
Anjaan passionately believes and lives the credo that it’s easy to spend many months in your life saving up for future vacations, but money is not as important as we think.
“Time is the commodity we should keep our eyes on. Of course money can buy you luxurious pre-planned vacations that make things easier but it can also make you miss the opportunity to get close to the core of the place you are visiting, or closer to the people who inhabit that place. Invariably you use money to get someone else to explain to you what’s going on, or to get somewhere quicker to save time. Money, thus, becomes a substitute for time. And the experiences you gather along in time are always far more valuable than any money you will ever make.” He poignantly observes.
There are more people in the tribe that Manoj and Anjaan belong to. Meet Mahala Lewis who lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona, has graduated from the University of Arizona in 2012, receiving a BA in Fine Art and Anthropology. But ask her who she is and she would say she is a person who loves hiking, painting, and hanging out with her two dogs and all her beautiful friends. Lewis was born in Binghamton, New York in 1990 and moved as an infant/child with my two wander lusting parents to a variety of places: Malaysia, China, Wyoming, Alaska, California, Texas, and Missouri (in no particular order). She has been drawing and painting from a young age, and continues to paint and draw with gouache, pastel, pencil, ink, acrylic, and oil. As she outlines, despite all her parents best intentions, she has held onto this weird artist streak that just won’t shake. “I’m inspired by my nomadic upbringing, multicultural roots, and the sacred feminine. I create art for pure sense enjoyment and hope some of my work speaks to you.”
Lewis has left many inspiring blogs narrating some of her most toughest and trying times and how looking inward worked as a tremendous healing ointment for her. It’s easy to guess that she too would join that side of table where people choose to expend time and money on an experience instead of hardware.
“I believe investment in experience, adventure, and self-care is more satisfying than materialistic consumption because it offers a chance to learn something new and to practice personal authentic expression. We are more creative and engaged when we explore the world without the necessity to act as consumers. There is also an opportunity to practice humility and mindfulness when you take care of, reuse and recycle the things you already have!” she prudently reasons.
The mystery of chasing moments instead o wardrobe or garage-sale additions is not that much of a riddle for people like Lewis and Manoj. Perhaps for the sheer certainty that nothing is ever certain when you spend on an experience. He recalls how his adorable wife used to be scared of water. “During our honeymoon in Maldives, I had a tough time convincing her that we should try Scuba-Dive, she finally but reluctantly said, ‘Ok’. The dive changed her very perspective of water. We cannot wait to go diving again. Egypt this time it is!!”
Manoj is also not the least bit guilty of how he splurged his days as a bachelor (traveling around Europe). “It was different countries, staying at hostels, different people I met; the experiences that we shared have enriched my thought process. The days I traveled with my wife and met many other couples, proved to me that “Made for each other” does happen and a partner brings in so much more to a travel. Adventure with the full family during our trek in Ooty, made me realize that this experience is worth much more than what I ever spent on it.”
Manoj is every bit sure that a few decades from now, when interacting with the next generation, he probably will not tell them about the Materialistic-ware he had or has. “I’d rather be an old man full of wit, who has this twinkle in the eye and say, “Aha!! Budapest!!! I’ve been there and… it was an adventure!!!!”
“Adventure/Experience vs Materialistic-ware, like everything, follows a basic principle. “Common Sense Prevails” If the money is going towards Adventure instead of going towards that heater / Air Conditioner, that will keep you alive given the cold / heat , then it is high time you sorted your priorities!!”
Like Anjaan recommends strongly as well. “Don’t wait to make money and then travel, do it backwards. Travel non-luxuriously with whatever little money you have, get enriched with experiences and eventually money will automatically flow in. Don’t forget, travel is the only thing that you can “buy”, that will make you richer. You really have limited time – what would rather spend it doing – Expanding your mind? Or enlarging your wallet?”
These words, thoughts and souls rhyme strongly with the theory of Hedonic Adaptation. Yes folks, there is indeed, an empirical study corroborating the seemingly absurd idea of spending on the invisible instead of the visible.
People like Manoj, Anjaan and Lewis are actually seers, easily forgotten in a land where people are obsessed with their and their neighbours’ brand of cars, bags, trousers, houses, furniture, cushion covers and the whole shebang.
This rare breed is not hoarding pointless iron, fur or wood but is rather piling up an even more precious war chest of memories, fun, new experiences and that life of ‘no regrets’.
While they are on that path, they are also on advanced rungs of happiness, and much ahead than you if think you have bigger porches or shoe racks! Ouch! Did that hurt? It should.
For Reily clearly lays it: Adaptation is an incredibly general process that operates at deep physiological, psychological and environmental levels, and it affects us in many aspects of our lives. He goes on to drill that we can maximize our overall satisfaction in life by shifting our investments away from products and services that give us a constant stream of experiences and towards ones that are more temporary and fleeting.
Here’s how it works.
Our Brains are not Morons
Because stereo equipment and furniture generally provide a constant experience so it’s very easy to adapt to them. On the other hand, transient experiences (a four-hour getaway, a scuba diving adventure, or a concert) are fleeting, so you can’t adapt to them as readily.
Areily is certainly not advising anyone to sell their sofa and go scuba diving but what this curious mind hammers home is that we need to understand what types of experiences are more or less susceptible to adaptation. Between a scuba diving investment and a sofa then, select the more transient one. The long-term effect of the sofa on your happiness is probably going to be much lower than you expect, while the long-term enjoyment of and memories from scuba diving will probably last much longer than you predict. Not to forget the part where Areily illustrates how constant comparison with your neighbor’s car or colleague’s phone, will soon dilute the happiness that you derived from its purchase.
The Happiness Quotient with an Adventure/Experience is immense. Something that cannot be measured. How many of you have purchased a wardrobe and said, this has given me Happiness, I can never forget? Manoj would also quip and ask here. “No two adventures are the same. However, we always seem to have a comparison for Materialistic-ware. E.g.: This car is better than my previous car.”
You may take a moment here to wonder why Bhutan is going ferociously after the concept of Gross National Happiness and not GDP or why Naomi Klein shreds the underbelly of Brand-Hypnotism, and Shopper’s-blindness in her landmark book ‘No Logo’ when she sketches a parallel universe of middle-class youth. “They get up in the morning, put on their Levi’s and Nikes, grab their caps, backpacks, and play stations and head for school…the message is clear – Get the kids and you have got the whole family and future market.” She illustrates a TV ad for Diesel jeans here. It shows two Korean teenagers turning into birds after they commit double suicide, finding freedom only in the total surrender to the brand. Global-youth marketing is a mind-numbingly repetitive affair, drunk on the idea of what is attempting to engineer a third notion of nationality – not America, not local, but uniting everything – the shopping nationality.
She also quoted an ad veteran David Lubars explaining the marketing industry’s formula for wooing consumers. “Consumers are like roaches, you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.”
Is it not possible that we too, as teens or afterwards, have been infected with some contagious brand conjunctivitis, a disease that is not only consuming our wallets, but our time and most importantly and sadly; our focus, our priorities, our energies and our definition of a happy life?
Areily quotes economist Tibor Scitovsky’s work ‘The Joyless Economy’ here. We have a tendency to take the safe and predictable path at work, and by extension in our personal life, and do things that provide steady and reliable progress. But real progress and real pleasure comes from taking risks and trying very different things.
Inject more serendipity and unpredictability in your life to leverage the phenomenon of ‘Hedonic Adaptation in your life, as Areily suggests. It’s like tickling. When we use the right hand to tickle ourselves, we don’t feel much sensation. But when we use our right hands to tickle our left sides, the slight difference in timing between the nervous system on the right and left side of your body can create a low-level of predictability and hence some tickling sensation.
There you go. Tickle yourself, your money and time a new way. Buy what makes you happy but do make sure it IS indeed making you happy and not just giving a short-term kick. Don’t judge anyone whether it is the those buying intangibles or the ones shopping for tangibles.
But remember that, there is, in fact, neurology and evolution at work, when someone says no to spending on a pointless crocodile skin wallet.
Because the same person might instead enjoy spending that very time, those very nerves and wads of money on watching a crocodile pond. And dare not call him/her stupid or reckless then, for you might just hear that dreaded line:
Oh! You are so stingy!