First published on Daily Life, August 2016.
If you’ve ever suspected that buying someone a present is less a gesture of love than it is a contribution to their graveyard of meaningless clutter, check your inbox in the lead-up to Father’s Day. Over the last few years, the catalogues that once advertised deep discounts on golf clubs and aftershave have morphed into gift guides that offer everything from whale watching tours and skydiving lessons to Formula One hot laps and 60-minute jaunts in private jets.
These guides tell us that giving stuff that’s doomed to gather dust in a garage is a consumer reflex rather than a symbol of affection. But giving an experience also means giving someone a memory, an adventure, a sense of enrichment. And those gifts, in Mastercard parlance, are priceless.
We live in a culture that’s hell-bent on convincing us that investing in experiences is always the priceless alternative to purchasing things. A May 2015 report in Fast Company found that over time, our happiness with the things we buy goes down while our satisfaction with things we’ve done goes up.
The rise of minimalism — whose figureheads include Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering guru who invites us to purge any possession that doesn’t spark instant euphoria and Walt Stillman, a New York director who’s managed to confine his every belonging to one small duffel bag — isn’t so much about solving the logistics of a messy home as is it is about selling us the idea that our stuff is getting in the way of our purer, higher selves.
And these days, you don’t pursue your purer, higher self by saddling yourself with a mortgage or saving up for an Italian leather couch from Freedom, you relocate to a treehouse in the Balinese jungle, trade your job as a high-flying executive to run a weaving workshop in Guatemala or you head to Mongolia to re-trace the footsteps of Genghis Khan.
“I make $130,000 a year, and I spend the vast majority of it on experiences—wild, rare, unforgettable experiences,” writes Tony, the wisely anonymous author of a June 2016 Toronto Life essay. “I’ve tasted more than 170 different wines in the last year—I keep track through an app called Vivino. Lately, I’m finding there are downsides to education; back in the day, when I was a neophyte, I could drink just about anything.”
Of course, going skydiving or living in the jungle or, hell, enjoying a bottle of 1979 Grange might be better for personal growth than springing for a Rolex or spending your savings on a designer handbag if choosing experiences over things really was a matter of choice rather than a matter of means.
The assumption that people who do things to express their identity are morally superior to people who buy things to express their identity obscures the fact that the experiences our culture celebrates require access to time, money and resources.
Sure, your ability to teach orphans in the Congo or live out of your backpack in a Japanese fishing village might be noble but chances are that you’re also probably pretty privileged. On Instagram, where bragging about experiences is an art form, it’s no accident that certain images — the aerial shot of a candlelit dinner at a painfully hip restaurant, manicured toes grazing the windowsill of a city vista — have become visual tropes.
These images appear to give access but really they promote exclusivity. The best experiences, like the best things, say less about your priorities than they do about the contents of your bank balance.
But choosing experiences over things also requires the power and permission to move freely through this world. As Phoebe Malt Bovy puts it in a June 2016 article in The New Republic, a culture that peddles the assumption that subscribing to this narrative makes your life more legitimate is also one that equates women with the domestic and the material and men with the outside and the outdoors.
“While the enjoyment of domestic life, of stuff, isn’t inherently negative, it is dismissed precisely because of its associations with the feminine,” she writes. There’s no female equivalent of Henry David Thoreau, the iconic American writer who denounced civilisation to build a house in the woods. And according to a 2013 study by The Outdoor Foundation, which found that 86 per cent of American’s campers and hikers are white, it seems that non-white people too are absent from this push to choose experiences over things. I guess when you’re negotiating the material conditions of your life, the impact of materialism on your soul is kind of low priority.
As someone whose 20s flew by in a blur of overseas stints and expensive dinners, I can tell you that the lust for experience is real. In the past, I secretly believed that there was something faintly basic about spending your money on things when you could sow the seeds for memories, adventures and a sense of personal enrichment. These days, I know that the habit of chasing experiences over things is a product of privilege, not a sign of moral good. When Mastercard tells us something is priceless, you can bet someone, somewhere is losing out.