Dead mobile phones, a Palm Pilot and, dare I say it, a Discman all gather dust somewhere in my house. I’d bet that you have a similar graveyard—of designer shoes, amazing kitchen gadgets, defunct video game consoles, and maybe all of the above. When you run across them (usually when it’s time to move and you have to decide what’s coming along and what’s going to the landfill), you just shake your head and wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?”

Not that these things are or ever were bad. The stuff of life—I just can’t think of a better term for it all—mattered once upon a time, at least for a little while. And then it became ordinary or it broke or went obsolete or became too embarrassing to be seen with in public. Like the proverbial car that loses 20% of its value the minute you drive it off the lot, things of all kinds morph from Gotta-Have to Dusty Clutter fast.

I wish I could convert all the money I spent on stuff-that-went-stale into the (inflation-adjusted) money I spent on it. If I could, I’d invest it all in an extra vacation or seven this year. The experiences I’ve had when I travel stand the test of time so much better. I remember them more clearly. They take up no shelf space. Even if the people nearest and dearest to me get a little tired of hearing about them, those experiences make me happy every time I think about them. That’s actually a pretty excellent return on investment.

Woman looking at Machu Picchu

You may have read that there’s a whole field of research these days that compares the value of material items to experiences. A lot of writers are citing a paper titled “Looking for happiness in all the wrong places” in The Journal of Positive Psychology. (But be forewarned. The subtitle is “The moderating role of gratitude and affect in the materialism-life satisfaction relationship.”) In un-clinical terms, it reveals that experiences have immeasurably more long-term value that objects.

As a traveler, that will not come as a surprise to you. Even the iffy travel experiences—and we all have them occasionally—are good long-term assets. How many times have I told the tale of almost being trapped in the Cincinnati airport by a Christmas Eve blizzard?


But the positive experiences are the ones that echo through my life and pay back on days and in ways I never could have dreamed. At a farmer’s market last week, a local orchard had a bin of apples labeled “seconds”. A little bruised and a day or two past their prime, they gave off a pre-cider aroma, which teleported me back 15 years to a farm in France’s Dordogne region. We were at the entrance of a cave that a farmer used to store his apples. They gave off that same smell, which meant not a thing to me at the time. Past the crates of fruit, we walked into the cave to a wall that bears a 25,000-year-old painting. It was an amazing experience. I’ll never forget it. And the cool thing all these years later is that, standing in that farm market, that triggered memory was as real as the bag of Golden Crisps in my hand.

Trust me, I’ve got a million of them. But of course, you do too. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Those experiences aren’t mere things. They are me, a part of me that nobody can take away. And okay, maybe I do have my eye on a new iPhone 6S, but only because I can do trip research on it. I swear.