Experiences, not Things Make us Happy

Ruby’s got talent.
Shiryodo Karate – Sparring Contact

The latest research shows that if you want to be happy then you should look for experiences, not things. Experiences that bring us into the moment make us happy on many levels. As someone who has trained in the martial arts most of my life I know not only the happiness in training it’s self but also the rich experiences that a life time of training have brought, many fond memories to look back on.

The Wandering Mind.

We all have wandering minds. According to psychologist Matthew Killingsworth forty-seven percent of the time, the average mind is wandering. It wanders about a third of the time while a person is reading, talking with other people, or taking care of children. Even, during sex it wanders 10 percent of the time. This wandering, leaving the moment we are in and seeking our somewhere else actually isn’t good for our well-being. He has developed a compelling scientific case for living in the moment. In a 2010 Science paper co-authored with psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, the two wrote that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”.

Stopping the wandering mind with Martial Arts.

When doing martial arts you are being engaged on two levels, physically and mentally. It’s my experience that this combination makes it difficult for the mind to wander. People often walk in the dojo door with work, family and other problems on their mind, but then by the time they walk out these are gone. Pretty much every martial artist you meet will tell you this. Working hard physically on a mentally demanding activity that you enjoy and is challenging all combines to bring you squarely into the moment with no space for the mind to wander. Which is a good thing as according to Killingsworth the mind tends to wander to negative, not positive places. Interfering with this negative preoccupation is what martial arts achieves. It’s these negative wanderings that have been stopped and by the time you leave the dojo, that dwelling on the problems or difficulties are gone, replaced with being in the moment, enjoying the moment.


There will still be times when the mind does wander, I know this as both a student and an instructor, sometimes that pull is so strong that it’s hard to resist. In fact it’s often easy to spot the wandering mind in the karate class… that’s the guy whose buggering up the kata or just messed up the flow drill that he knows well. It’s rarely the guy your sparring there is just rarely the space for the mind to wander while your sparring, no matter how hard you might try. In fact one of the signs of an experienced martial artist under pressure is the absence of emotion and expression, their blank face. Every bit of cognitive capacity is needed at times to perform at the highest level. I know there have been times when in competition there have been hundreds of people around me yet the only thing I see is the person in front of me, if I perceive the slightest distraction in my opponent this is the moment I will attack… Let the mind wander for just an instant and you get hit (even if not hard), that is one way to combat the wandering mind.


For Killingsworth, happiness is in the content of moment-to-moment experiences. Nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries. So on a day to day basis if your after happiness your better off doing something that will bring you into a moment of mental engagement, like martial arts rather than buying something like some new clothes.

Experiences not things make us happy. 

Over the past decade, lots of psychology research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than possessions do. The idea that experiential purchases are more satisfying than material purchases has long been the domain of Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich. Since 2003, he has been trying to figure out exactly how and why experiential purchases are so much better than material purchases. In the journal Psychological Science recently, Gilovich and Killingsworth, along with Cornell doctoral candidate Amit Kumar, expanded on the current understanding that spending money on experiences “provides more enduring happiness.” They looked specifically at anticipation as a driver of that happiness; whether the benefit of spending money on an experience accrues before the purchase has been made, in addition to after. And, yes, it does.happy_graph

Essentially, when you can’t live in a moment, they say, it’s best to live in anticipation of an experience. Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies or tournaments and seminars, tend to trump material purchases because the experience of buying anything really starts before you buy it. It’s thinking about the trip or seminar, anticipating it that brings happiness as well as the actual event.

Waiting for an experience apparently elicits more happiness and excitement than waiting for a material good (and more “pleasantness” too—an eerie metric). By contrast, waiting for a possession is more likely fraught with impatience than anticipation. “You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation,” Kumar said, “and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive. Or when the two-day shipping on Amazon Prime doesn’t seem fast enough.”

Gilovich’s prior work has shown that experiences tend to make people happier because they are less likely to measure the value of their experiences by comparing them to those of others. Experiential purchases are also more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior. Looking back on purchases made, experiences make people happier than do possessions. It’s kind of counter to the logic that if you pay for an experience, like a vacation, it will be over and gone; but if you buy a tangible thing, a couch, at least you’ll have it for a long time. Actually most of us have a pretty intense capacity for tolerance, or hedonic adaptation, where we stop appreciating things to which we’re constantly exposed. iPhones, clothes, couches, et cetera, just become background. They deteriorate or become obsolete. It’s the fleetingness of experiential purchases that endears us to them. Either they’re not around long enough to become imperfect, or they are imperfect, but our memories and stories of them get sweet with time. Even a bad experience becomes a good story.

Martial arts, the experiences never stop.

Training in the martial arts brings many experiences outside the day to day training we do. There are gradings, seminars, tournaments, camps and many other events. At Shiryodo Karate I plan the year out to have a range of events that everyone can participate it. From beach training days to breaking seminars, all these events bring experiences that enhance peoples experience of the martial arts.


I can still remember my first Karate grading, training hard for weeks preparing for it, then the exhilaration of passing and getting my blue belt and that was over 25 years ago. This is the same for everyone doing martial arts, even young kids. I know at times I’ll have a 4 year old who isn’t concentrating. I’ll tell them that it’s only a couple of weeks until their blue belt grading so they need to practice so they will know what to do, suddenly they are paying attention. Then comes grading day and after all the parents are amazed at how hard all the kids trained and how good their attention was, even the ones who are often off with the fairies.


Then there are the black belt gradings, the culmination of years of effort. The lead up can involve months of extra training in preparation. These can be hard, both physically and emotionally but the experience of completing it is one of those moments that no one ever forgets. They change people, give them a confidence they never knew they could have, having faced an incredibly difficult challenge and pushed through it, they walk taller, hold their head high and wear their black belt with pride. The experience of this long lead up, then the event then the lasting memories all add to the experience and the happiness it brings.


But it doesn’t stop there, then there are seminars, tournaments, camps and social events. All of these are experiences that take us out of the everyday. They are events we look forward to and have fond memories of. Some we learn through, some are just fun and others great bonding experiences. Take advantage of the opportunities that training in the martial arts bring, participate in as many of these events as you can. Not only will your martial arts benefit but as research shows it’s experiences, not things that make us happy so have as many experiences as you can.


The medal or the trophy can’t be brought they are earned. It’s the experience of earning them that give them value and the memories they hold that we treasure.


The experiences and enjoyment don’t stop either. After 25 years I still have a great time and fantastic experiences on a regular basis. When I look at those who have been training even longer than me I see the same thing. The three men in this picture are all 8th Dans all have a lifetime of martial arts and are all enjoying it to this day. Just remember it’s the experiences that you gain along the path that are what make it worth travelling, so seek out the experiences.


Osu Sensei Malcolm.

Malcolm Ayles
Shihan Malcolm Ayles
The question I constantly ask myself is how can I help this person... what can I do to empower them, help them focus, help them become the best they can be.

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