To Have or to Do

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
—Mark Twain

It was just months after I had taken an assistant professor position at the University of Maryland when it happened. My home was 75 miles away, so, while looking for a house closer to the university, I rented a room in a quiet residential neighborhood in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was just a few miles from the university, and I stayed in that room two nights a week and commuted home to my family on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

One night, after working at my office until about 9:30 or 10 p.m. until I was quite tired, I got into my car and drove the half-hour to my room. At that time of night, the neighborhood where I was staying was habitually quiet and the streets deserted. On this evening, however, there was a man wandering the street where I lived. He didn’t seem to have any particular destination, and he appeared to be out of place in that area. I thought this was strange, but I was too tired to be as cautious as I should have been, so I drove by him and parked my car. At about the same time as I was getting out of my car, he had caught up to where I was parked. He asked if I could help him. I turned toward him to answer him, and it was then that he pulled a handgun from his clothes and pointed it at my midgut.

“Give it to me,” he said.

I didn’t know what he was talkingabout, so I asked, “What?”

“Your wallet,” he said.

I was so tired that I just gave it to him, but I did think briefly that I had promised my second daughter I would give my wallet to her when I was done with it. He then put away his gun and ran off. I saw nothing of either him (or my wallet) ever again.

I briefly considered following him, but, as tired as I was, I thought better of that course of action and went inside and called the police. They took forever to come.

In that wallet was a US$20 bill (it was, after all, 1975, and US$20 was a lot of money then). So the money, my Social Security card, my driver’s license, and several other pictures and cards that had been in my possession, some of them since grade school, had been taken from me.

I missed those things, but I was able to replace the most important of them. Nevertheless, as I look back on that experience, I realize that I have gotten more than my US$20 worth by the telling of that experience. Living through that episode has been revealed to me as more important than the things I lost. The story continues to be worth more than the wallet.

Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich [1] published a paper that explored the dichotomy between buying something tangible or spending the same amount of money on experiential episodes. It turns out, they found, that experiences make us happier than do possessions. Experiences help to define our personas and also tend to foster social interactions, whereas we can become so familiar with possessions that we lose awareness of them. Experiences are renewed every time we think of them or share them with others. We get almost none of this with material things. In this regard, I am reminded of a suggestion from Omar Khayyam: “If of mortal goods thou art bereft, and of thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left, sell one, and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

Years ago, in my first few years of selling fruit at the Bel Air (Maryland) Farmers’ Market, I noticed that people would sometimes complain about the price I had put on my apples, but that these same people would spend more money on a small bunch of preserved flowers sold by a nearby vendor. My interpretation of their behavior is that the apples would be eaten and gone in a short period of time. The flowers, however, would last much longer and maintain their visible value far into the future. There was no recognition of the overwhelming nutritional advantages of the apples over the inedible flowers, but these potential customers obviously valued the longer term over the transient and spent their money accordingly.

Realizing this, when we have a choice of buying something or participating in something, the latter choice will return much more to us than will the former. Spending one’s hard-earned cash on something that could turn into an adventure or add to one’s store of knowledge pays off in the long run more than buying that newest widget, no matter how cool it is at the time.

This applies to professional activities, as well. I always thought that attendance at professional meetings was important, even if the meeting expenses came from my own pocket. I have heard just the opposite from others, but I never regretted my choices to pay my own way to attend.

Reference

  • L. Van Boven and T. Gilovich, “To do or to have? That is the question,” J. Personality Soc. Psych., vol. 85, no. 6, pp. 1193–1202, 2003.