TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, I found myself quite unexpectedly spending a night in Reno, Nevada. Gambling was the obvious form of evening entertainment, but money was tight back then. A friend convinced me to splurge and spend $20 playing a slot machine. My measly 25- and 50-cent wagers kept me entertained for nearly an hour, but when I was down to my last few quarters, I bet them all on one final play.
The machine immediately lit up with a colorful array of flashing lights and I waited patiently for my winnings to start spilling out. When that didn’t happen, I started to walk away, assuming I was done for the evening. Thankfully, my companion was more casino-wise than me and she flagged down an employee who was walking the floor. Once he confirmed my machine hadn’t been tampered with, he pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and started handing me $100 bills.
The $1,200 I walked away with that night was the most cash I’d ever had at one time. For two weeks, I pondered how to spend my fortune. I made a list of items I wanted, and I weighed the pros and cons of each potential purchase. My list had to be whittled down several times since my number of wants was far larger than my budget.
I’ve long since forgotten what I ended up buying. In the years that followed, all those items I wanted so badly ended up being donated to charity, sold or thrown in the trash. But the memory of that time made me wonder what I’d do today if I ended up with a similar unexpected windfall.
For my thought experiment, I decided that—adjusting for inflation and a significant increase in my salary—a $5,000 “prize” would likely provide me with a similar thrill these days. But when I started to think about what I might buy, I couldn’t come up with a single item. A new camera? No, my current one is just fine. A new television? No, I barely watch the one I have. Sure, the puppy would enjoy some new toys. But even I think spending a few thousand dollars on dog toys is probably excessive. Instead, my thoughts turned to any number of experiences I’d like to spend the money on: A few days exploring San Diego. A weeklong writing retreat spent in a remote cabin. Enrolling in some of the many online courses I often contemplate taking.
My experiment made me wonder about materialism and the effect it has on happiness. When I was younger, happiness seemed closely tied to possessions. I believed owning more stuff meant I’d be happier. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to realize happiness is an internal state, rather than a commodity that can be purchased. As my view of happiness shifted, all that valuable stuff simply became clutter. Today, I put far less value on possessions. Playing with my dogs, spending an entire day reading a book or going on a weekend getaway are the things that make me happy these days. Material girl? Not anymore.