The Wealth of Experiences

Stella posing with some "Daddy Dolls" at the mall last year.

Stella posing with some "Daddy Dolls" at the mall last year.

When I was a young boy, I loved to play with Star Wars action figures. That makes me like 99% of all adult males in their early 40’s. I have great memories of the hours spent recreating scenes from the movies, as well as writing my own unique plots with the handful of characters I had. I still have those toys and they are really beat up, a testament to how loved they were.

I was an adult when the second trilogy came out, but my mother started gifting me a new round of action figures at holidays and special occasions. I thought it was a nice way to remember happy times. These I opted to save and they went into storage. I had heard of people who had sold older toys for decent money and I thought, since I wasn’t going to play with them, I might as well treat them like an investment.

I am blessed to have two daughters, ages 11 and 9. When the first was born, she became my padawan, a nickname I’ve used for her ever since. Beyond that, however, I’ve not pushed Star Wars on them. When I have brought it up, they have not been interested. That’s okay. I’m not in to Rin Tin Tin – my Dad’s era – and I am happy with my children developing their own passions. That seems right.

A few years ago, they found my old Star Wars toys and started playing with them. They called them “Daddy Dolls” and essentially integrated them into their existing play narratives. Darth Vadar was a friend of Barbie. Yoda and Dora the Explorer would take car rides. It was quite beautiful.

Then, as curious children do, they found my storage cabinet with the dozen new action figures still in the box. “Dad, can we play with these?” No, you’ve got plenty to play with, you don’t need those. “Please, Dad.” No, you can play with the old ones but I’m saving these. “Dad, we’d really love to play with these.” I’m sure but they’re in great condition and I want to keep them that way.

Audible hosted a series of lectures called The Great Courses which, truly, are amazing. I can’t get enough of them. I recently finished one called Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide. In the course of that lecture, Professor Scott Heuttel presented a dialog on whether things or experiences should be more highly valued. If we could spend $1,000 on new furniture or $1,000 on a vacation, which is the better option, from an economics point of view?

I must admit – and this may sound ignorant to many of you – that the answer to me was obvious: the new furniture. An experience is fleeting – sometimes it’s not even that good – while the couch is going to be with you for a long time. You can resell the kitchen table later when you get a new one – it will still have some value – but when the experience is used up, it’s gone. The rational economist in me felt the furniture was the obvious choice.

And that, of course, was wrong. In example after example, Heuttel demonstrated that experiences have far more value than things. Experiences create memories that we carry with us for a lifetime. When shared with someone else, they create personal bonds that we value. When we relate our experiences to others – I was at that concert, for example – we relive the experience and feel some of the emotion again. The parts of our brain that are active during the experience actually fire again from the memory.

In a choice between $1,000 for new furniture or $1,000 for a vacation, the economic utility is not even comparable. The vacation should win every time. I know this. We prioritize vacations and have old furniture as a result, but I always thought this made us an odd family, not a rational one.

There are some powerful insights for our cities here as well. When we focus exclusively on stuff – landing the new big box store, building the new interchange, how many cars we can park – we meet a certain human compulsion for advancement. It feels like progress to the cold, rational parts of our brains.

Miniature golf, an experience we value. 

Miniature golf, an experience we value. 

When we focus on experiences, however, we bind people to a place. And to each other.

When we make that park pleasant to stroll through, when we make that street safe to cross, when we make that public building impressive to look at, we’re connecting our civic improvements to the more powerful parts of our brains, the part that values experiences over material goods. And these bonds run deep, last forever and are easily transferred to others.

In short, when we build a city worth experiencing, we’re building a place that has enduring wealth.

After finishing the lecture, I went down to the basement and emptied all the Star Wars action figures into a big bag and gave them to my daughters. I now have a week of watching them play together, a week where these two people I intensely love shared joy with each other, used their creativity to build new stories and, through their play, grew as humans. Whatever value I thought I was storing in that file cabinet looks insignificant in comparison.