Solo Traveler: Things Or Experiences?

Oaxacan boys create their own fun. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler
Things or Experiences?

I was the only child and grandchild in my family for a long time. When I was four and was asked what I wanted for Christmas, I said I didn’t want toys, I wanted Santa to bring me one of his elves so I would have someone to play with. My mother had to explain that elves are “people” and we simply can’t own other people.

Even at four years old, it was clear that “things” were not nearly as much fun as a friend, someone with a mind of their own, someone who could play!

Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, says his research indicates money can buy happiness, but it’s only temporary. We quickly adapt to the existence of physical objects. A new thing is exciting for a while, but then we get used to it. The newness, the “happy-factor” fades away.

His findings indicate that when money is spent on an object, we expect to have it for a long time, and that it will always bring some degree of happiness. We often think spending money on experiences is a waste because the experience is quickly over.  But his research shows the satisfaction with money spent is greater over time when the money was used for an experience. We tend to integrate what happens to us, and memories are the sources of stories we can relive again and again. They become part of our identity.

Traveling around the world in recent years, I have been repeatedly impressed with how happy some of the poorest people are. They make their own fun with each other, and the less they have, the more creative they are at spending time together.

In Oaxaca I watched two boys playing with a dead kiddie car, the kind with rechargeable batteries that children can drive around. The older boy tied a rope to it and pulled it up a long hill while the little one enjoyed the ride. Then the big kid hopped on the back and down they zoomed, no batteries required! 

In a little village in Mexico, a 10-year-old boy in a filthy white t-shirt had a cicada glued to a string that was tied to his finger. It crawled over his chest, flew around in a big circle, got tangled up in his hair and made everyone laugh. That bug was the “toy” the other kids lusted after all day.

Many of us who are living in a commercialized world, constantly bombarded by advertising, believe there is no true happiness without the perfect wrinkle-free face, latest clothing styles, newest electronics, big SUV, and mansion-sized house.

Yet our things are rarely characters in the stories we tell other people.  We love to talk about funny things that happened to us and the mistakes we made that almost proved fatal. Seasoned travelers will tell you “What doesn’t kill you makes the best story!”

We don’t have to get rid of property to experience wonderful things in the world. Experiences happen in all areas of life, not just through travel. But there does come a time when we ought to take a good long look at just how much of our lives we spend maintaining things versus how much time we spend doing what we love and playing with those we love.

We should be telling the great stories, letting our lives and how we lived them define us. All that stuff we own will still be here when we’re gone, and is that really what we want to be remembered for?

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website:

Follow her continuing adventures on the travel blog:

Hardage welcomes comments via email:

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