Pain, Adventure, & The Mundane: The Identity Shaping Power of Our Experiences

What is the power of experience? If you’re reading this, chances are you’re in pursuit of building an amazing life. To meet that end, research shows that spending money on experiences is the best investment for long-term happiness. It’s better than purchasing material things—the newest Apple product, buying a new car, or the latest designer fashion trends.

These things will boost your happiness for a time, but then these new gadgets will become a part of your new normal. You take their presence for granted. The new car loses its new car smell, the iPhone you bought becomes outdated, the fashion trends shift in a new direction. These material things become normal and your happiness returns to baseline. This is called hedonistic adaptation.

Experiences, on the other hand, provide happiness in a more unique way. While the material goods only provide a boost of happiness directly after purchase (before the novelty wears off), experiences provided happiness at three different points. 

The Three stages of Experiential Pleasure

First, before the event occurs, you experience what’s called anticipatory excitement. This is the period of time, sometimes days or weeks, leading up to the event where you begin to imagine what it will be like once you’re there in the moment. You daydream about the warm Caribbean sun on your skin, or how good the Italian pasta will taste in the streets of Rome. You begin to fantasize and play out different scenarios: what it will be like and how you’ll feel. You begin to predict your future happiness in this moment, which in turn leads to a positive boost in emotions long before you even have the experience. 

During the second phase, you get to have the actual experience itself. This may live up to your expectations, and it might even blow your expectations away. In either case, you get the enjoyment of being in the moment experiencing that which you’ve been fantasizing about. 

The final piece of happiness you can draw from this experience occurs after the event has come and passed. Every time you think of your experience, feelings of nostalgia muster to the forefront of your mind. You get to re-experience all of the positive feelings you had while you were there, in the moment. This reliving of your experience will give you a boost in positive emotions even after it has long passed. The coolest part of nostalgia is that you can get this boost in positive feelings an infinite number of times. You simply just have to recall the positive experiences from your past. 

Experiences provide three forms of happiness for the price of one event. However, this isn’t only true of the positive experiences in your life. The third phase of recalling experiences can also give you a boost in negative feelings as you relive the painful memories of your past.

While many of us would prefer to remember only the positive moments from our past, there is more to these experiences than the feelings they arouse. Experiences can play a much more profound role in your life through their ability to shape your very identity. They can act as catalysts that shift your entire perspective on life. To illustrate this point, I’ll share three specific memories from my past—one painful, one adventurous, and one mundane—to illustrate the identity shaping power of these moments.

My childhood dog, Bo.

Painful Experiences

The first was at the age of fifteen when we put our family dog down. His decline in health happened so suddenly. One day he was playing fetch in the yard, and the next he could hardly move. I didn’t really know what to expect. My mother said I didn’t have to go to the vet, but this was very much my dog—we were best buds—and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Rationally, I knew it’d be quick and painless, but my experience with death didn’t’ exist up to this point. 

My dog, Bo, fought and cried as the vet inserted the needle that would be the last shot he ever needed. Bo knew what was coming, and I was responsible for holding down this 110lb behemoth of a golden retriever. I felt the life leave him as his body fell motionless in my arms. I swear I could feel his soul leave his body that day. My first real experience with death and one of the rare times I can recall myself crying as a young adult. 

In retrospect, this moment taught me about pain and sacrifice. Bo was old, thirteen, and for a dog his size that is a full life. He was sick and in a lot of pain. That day I learned that love sometimes means sacrificing your own happiness for the happiness of someone you care about. Holding on to things for too long out of your own comfort and pleasure can be the very thing that causes others harm. It’s a delicate balance to reconcile the two; the give and take of sacrifice and happiness. 

I’ve learned to reconcile the two by combining them. I draw a sense of purpose by sacrificing for others. Losing a night of sleep to lend emotional support to a struggling friend. Putting the pressure and discomfort on myself to alleviate the struggle for others. It’s become a part of my identity. 

Real snapshot of me freaking out.

Adventurous Experiences

Another perspective-shifting moment came at the only time I’ve ever completely relinquished control of my life. The moment immediately after I jumped from an airplane at 13,000 feet. 

Descending toward the Earth, the wind rushing past your skin. At first, you can’t breathe. Partially out of shock, but also because you convince yourself the wind in your face is too strong. After a moment you settle and realize you can, in fact, breathe, if you just allow yourself to take a breath. “You aren’t dead yet,” you think to yourself. So you take that breath. 

Then something magical happens. Your fear of the parachute failing dwindles to nothing, your fear of everything that could go wrong silences. In this moment is a beautiful helplessness. There is nothing you can do to improve your chances of survival, no action you can take to increase the odds in your favor. In that moment you’re given the freedom to completely surrender to the outcome of fate.

In this moment I was closest to death, and yet, in an odd sort of way, it was the moment I was least afraid of it. It was a moment that forever changed my relationship with the fear of my immortality. 

I have a personal mantra, “Momento Mori,” which roughly translates from Latin to mean, remember you will die. It’s not meant to incite fear or worry, quite the contrary. It’s meant to embolden me to pursue the things that I believe lead me to a full life; not to worry about the pettiness of embarrassment or failure—the occasional hit to the ego that many avoid at all costs. It reminds me of the temporary nature of our time on this Earth and not to fear the end of this journey, but to make the most of every step I take along the way. 

Mundane Experiences

Traveling to Spain was my first international trip, my first experience submersing myself into a culture different than my own. Traveling to a place where I was a stranger unfamiliar with the customs of the local people. I did a lot of cool things on that trip, but the experience that has stuck with me the most occurred during a grocery store trip for snacks. 

At the checkout line, the cashier asked me if I wanted a bag for the few items we purchased. (Getting a bag for your groceries is not implied there.) I knew some Spanish going into this trip, but I was not comfortable enough yet to engage in any real-time conversation. The cashier asked if I wanted a bag, and I didn’t know what she was saying. More than a minute passes with each of us trying to understand the other. The line behind me grew considerably, the impatience written on their faces. “Why could this man not answer such a simple question?” I’m sure they thought. 

I worked in a grocery store in high school, and many of my close friends have family who are not native English speakers. I’ve seen this same scenario play out in grocery stores in the U.S., a non-English speaker can’t understand simple instructions given by the cashier and are met with hostility as the people around them become frustrated at the inconvenience. 

My experience put me on the other end of that interaction. I left feeling stupid for not knowing how to respond. It was a moment of humility I needed to fully grasp the reality of what life is like for those living in a culture different from their own. It’s a moment that has allowed me to become more compassionate and patient. It was an immersive experience in empathy.

All Experience Can Provide An Opportunity For Growth 

A worthwhile experience leaves you forever changed. They help us define who we are, and who we want to become, by providing benchmarks for how we’ll act in different scenarios. They allow us to create an identity around the track record of our behavior, our bravery, and our resilience. Experiences shift the way we see the world. 

You can’t always predict which experiences will have a profound impact and those that will not. All you can do is move yourself to have as many experiences as possible. Take the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. Be brave and embrace your curiosity. These moments of insight are worth it. Without the hindsight of the past, never would I have guessed that the death of a pet would change my identity, or that a simple grocery store interaction would change how I view culture. 

And never would I have guessed that jumping out of an airplane would forever change the way I look at the sky. 

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