JOY DOESN’T COME easily to me. I tend to default toward melancholy, so I try to ensure my discretionary purchases bring as much happiness as possible.
Like many readers, I’m a firm believer that buying experiences sparks more joy than buying stuff. The dollars we’ve spent on family vacations, sporting events, church mission trips and, more recently, escape rooms—worth trying sometime—have created memories that’ll last a lifetime. Yet obviously not all of our discretionary money is spent on experiences.
Recently, I’ve been pondering how serial purchases of similar items rarely create lasting joy. I’m an AFOL—adult fan of Lego. That’s the affectionate term applied to grownups like me who remain fascinated by the joy and wonder of building beautiful creations with small, plastic studded bricks.
My family and I have spent more than $12,000 on Lego sets over the past 20 years or so—a startling sum in retrospect. Each new set provides bliss and occasionally awe when building the most grandiose—and expensive—constructions. Yet, hundreds of builds later, I’ve also felt this joy quickly fade away. It’s replaced by the fresh impulse to purchase the next Lego set, although the delight the next one creates will quickly pass as well.
Knowing this, I try to teach my kids that they should never expect their next purchase, no matter what it is, to bring happiness that endures. Lately, my six-year-old son always wants to spend his money, earned by doing chores, on small robotic dragon toys. These dragons can be folded up into balls, only to sneakily emerge to unleash their vengeance on other dragon balls.
He recently bought a six pack of these toys for $30. That’s four weeks of his earnings. He played with them non-stop for 24 hours, even sleeping with a few in his bed. But within a day, he was already planning which dragon balls he’d buy next.
Being the wise Dad that I am, I explained to him that he shouldn’t expect another dragon ball to bring him some elusive, lasting joy that the first six weren’t able to deliver. “I know, Daddy,” he responded, and then continued planning for dragon ball No. 7.
My 11-year-old son, a little more learned than his younger brother, recently fell prey to the same sentiment. He was spending far too much money on miniature skateboard ramps. Imagine two fingers acting as the legs on a three-inch skateboard, sending the board flying down a ramp. At a cost of about $20 a pop, he spent at least $100 of his hard-earned money on something that brought only fleeting joy before ending up in the giveaway box.
He regretted those purchases a few months later as he was doing extra chores to save for an Apple Watch. I vividly remember the nugget of wisdom I offered at the time—that he shouldn’t assume that yet another skateboard ramp accessory would provide a level of joy that the prior sets hadn’t provided. I’m beginning to think my kids need to endure this regret a few times on their own before it sinks in.
As I gaze at the Lego website, however, I’m not quite sure I’ve yet learned this lesson myself. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the purchase that provides almost as much joy as the item itself.
Speaking of anticipation, is it true that looking forward to something can create more joy than being surprised? I like surprises—surprise parties, an unexpected finish to a magic trick or a gift from my wife that I wasn’t expecting. I tend to assume that being surprised adds to an occasion’s enjoyment. Yet I’ve also heard that looking forward to something—the expectation of a joyful event—increases the excitement. Which is more pleasure-inducing, surprise or anticipation?
Like many things in life, the answer is probably, “It depends.” For many years, one of the ways my wife and I have enjoyed making our kids happy is by surprising them with a late-night run in their pajamas to the donut shop. These events have an anticipation factor of zero, so the surprise meter consistently runs at 100%. The kids continue to love donuts in their jammies.
On the night I came home from the last of my final exams, after four years in dental school, my wife handed me an itinerary for a weeklong trip to New York City she had stealthily planned. She told me to pack my bags because we were leaving in the morning.
This was a colossal surprise. That’s partly because we were dirt poor and couldn’t afford it, but more so because it was a total shocker, perfectly juxtaposed with all the days of toil and studying I’d gone through for weeks. It’s difficult to know whether or not I could have experienced even more pleasure if I’d been anticipating the trip for months.
A few years ago, I flew home to Texas to surprise my Mom on her 60th birthday. I pulled into her driveway as she was sitting on the front porch, never expecting to see my smiling face. Her excitement was unparalleled. I doubt that knowing ahead of time could have made for a more heightened sense of gladness in her.
On an opposite note, my wife and I are planning our first cruise in celebration of our 25th anniversary this fall. We booked it last November, so we’re in the middle of a year-long wait, with growing expectations for our 10 days at sea. Will the months of looking forward create more joy than a surprise would have?
Perhaps the cumulative joy is about the same. After all, some people enjoy eating their dessert slowly and savoring it, while others prefer to down it as quickly as possible in a burst of sweet ecstasy. Either way, it tastes good.
Casey Campbell is an active duty military periodontist and a homeschooling father of five. He and his family currently live in Northern Virginia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and shouldn’t be construed as official or as reflecting the views of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense. Casey’s previous articles were A Job With Teeth and A Moving Predicament.