Materialism and the urge to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is our current culture’s version of an essential animal and human trait. It is our way of shaking our manes, flashing our feathers, and howling like monkeys. But there’s been a shift recently—in some circles, people have embraced an idea called experientialism. For these people, it is now not only socially acceptable but also socially expected to prefer experiences over stuff. And this idea is already starting to spread from these innovators to the mainstream because of one of the 21st century’s most important innovations: Facebook.
A New Kind of Conspicuous Consumption
If you ask them, most experientialists would laugh at the idea that they try to keep up with the Joneses. Yet one of the most counterintuitive things about experientialists in general is that, although they want nothing to do with keeping up with the Joneses in the traditional sense, many consume just as conspicuously as even the most status-conscious materialists. I blame Facebook.
Excerpted from Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever
Remember how friends used to tell you about their latest vacation? They would invite you over for dinner, and, as the after-dinner chocolates were passed around, pull out their photos and bore you for a bit.
Now, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the other social media sites, you can share every last detail of your trip in real time. You can let everyone know that, right now, you are watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat or the sunset from the rooftop of your riad in Marrakech, or that you are on a chairlift in the Alps, or that you have just finished packing and cannot wait to go. You need not, of course, broadcast your thoughts and updates only when you are on vacation. Why not share that you have just run a marathon, that you are at a Rolling Stones concert or a TEDx conference, or that you are thrilled because someone bought you flowers? Today, where you are, how you are feeling, what you are doing, and what you have done have suddenly become valuable social currency—just as they were before the 20th century.
Anyone can buy most material goods, but not everyone can be at the event you are Instagramming a picture from.
Then, most people lived in small communities. Everyone knew everybody else in the village. That meant everyone would just as likely know what you did with your time as how many possessions you owned, and how expensive and how good those possessions were. That meant, for signaling your status to others and establishing your place in the village’s social hierarchy, what you did was as important as what you owned. To signal status, the conspicuous consumption of leisure—that is, experiences—was equal to the conspicuous consumption of goods.
It was the arrival of cities that changed all that. The mass migrations of the 20th century, from small communities where everyone knew everyone else to large metropolises where you barely knew your neighbor, meant that what you did with your time became virtually useless as a way to signify status. In the relative anonymity of urban and, to a lesser extent, suburban life, your neighbors, friends, colleagues at work, and the people you passed on the street were much more likely to see what you owned than know what you did.
A material possession could deliver far more status than an experiential purchase. And so, in the 20th century, the conspicuous consumption of leisure was not nearly so effective as the conspicuous consumption of goods at telling others who you were.
Social media has turned this on its head. Now only a few people, relatively, might see your new sofa, or the car parked in your driveway. But with all your friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, many more will now know you are partying in Ibiza, are in the front row of a Jay-Z concert, or that you have just completed a Tough Mudder assault course. And these people are more likely to be in your peer group, the people, in other words, whose opinion you are most interested in.
Facebook is giving us a new way to worry that we may not be keeping up with the Joneses.
Social media also plays a vital role in making experiences appear more valuable, thanks to their pivotal role in the “rarity principle.” According to this idea, the bigger the difference between the number of people who have access to something and the number of people who know about it, the rarer and more valuable the thing is. Anyone, after all, can buy most material goods, but not everyone can be at the event you are tweeting about or Instagramming a picture from.
The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media
Thanks to social media we want to keep up with what the Joneses are doing. Are we going to enough pop-ups, conferences, and concerts—like all our friends and acquaintances seem to be? This concern has become so widespread that it has a new name: fear of missing out, better known by its acronym, FOMO. At the birth of the experiential era, four out of every 10 people aged 18 to 34 in the US and UK say they sometimes worry that they are missing out. Facebook, you might say, is giving us a new way to keep up with the Joneses, and a new way to worry that we may not be keeping up.
FOMO is, at the least, problematic for experientialism. Because if this new way of living is just as likely to deliver anxiety and stress as materialism, how is it an improvement? Thought of in these terms, experientialism might even sound worse than materialism.
In today’s hyper-connected, 24/7 world, the game has changed. Not only do we notice material status cues when we see people in the real world, we are also getting and giving status updates through Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social networks. And since we check these throughout the day—when we get up and when we go to bed, on the toilet, on the train, in the classroom, and in the office—that means that we are playing the game more regularly, and thinking about the game more too. As we do that, we are more likely to end up feeling anxious and stressed, and perhaps depressed, about status.
There is another change in the game that is having an even more damaging effect, I believe, on happiness. In the past as we went about our everyday lives, we would not only see people with fancier cars and watches and clothes. We would also encounter people with cheaper, older, more threadbare, and less designer equivalents to the stuff we had. That mix would leave us feeling secure. It felt okay not being at the top of the social ladder, as long as you weren’t at the bottom of the pile either.
Comparing experiences is less clear-cut than it is with material goods, which means you're less likely to think about the status implications of what you do.
Now, think about the last time you looked at a social network. Have you ever noticed how Facebook, and other social networks, sometimes brings to mind upscale magazines filled with the look-but-don’t-touch lifestyles of the rich and lucky?
Your friends’ lives may well not be quite so perfect, of course. Life for most people, after all, is not a flawless timeline of weekends away and weddings in glamorous places. And if you stop to think about it, you know that. But it is hard to keep that in perspective. And since we are all connected to so many people on Facebook, there is always someone jetting off to Miami, having lunch in Lima, lounging on a boat in the Mediterranean, or attending a wedding in the Caribbean.
This constant bombardment leaves us feeling that we are always at bottom of the pile looking up. And that, in a meritocratic system like ours, can leave us feeling anxious, stressed, and depressed.
So all of this puts Facebook and other social networks in the curious position of supporting the rise of experientialism, while also undermining its benefits. This suggests, ironically, that if you buy into experientialism, you could end up with just as much anxiety, stress, and depression as you would have had in gentler, more materialistic times. But, and it is a very important but, even though keeping up with the Joneses through experiences has the potential to be anxiety-inducing, experientialism is still better than materialism.
Despite the double-edged sword of social media, it’s important to learn and remember four discoveries social scientists have made in recent years: that experiences are more likely to make us happy because we are less likely to get bored with them, more likely to see them with rose-tinted glasses, and more likely to think of them as part of who we are, and because they are more likely to bring us closer to other people and are harder to compare.
Even if experiences can be compared, the comparison is less clear-cut than it is with material goods, and that means you are less likely to think about the comparison, less likely to regret your choice afterward, and less likely to think about the status implications of what you do. So if you want to be happier, save yourself the hard work of all that thinking, and just choose experiences instead. They’re not only the smart route to happiness. Thanks to Facebook, they’re also the best way to shake your tail feathers.
Editor: Samantha Oltman (@samoltman)