The Value of Making Little Experiences Meaningful

There’s a little ice cream shop near where we live that serves some really delicious ice cream. I’m not sure if they make it in their shop or whether they buy it from a vendor, but whatever the case may be, it’s incredibly rich and creamy stuff.

Naturally, our kids love the place, especially on summer evenings when it’s warm out but not unpleasantly hot. Whenever we’re near the ice cream shop with our children, or one of them thinks of it after dinner, we’re usually asked whether or not we can go to the ice cream shop for a cone.

Now, if our whole family goes there, it would cost about $20 for a cone for each of us. It’s not a terrible expense, but it’s one that could add up pretty fast if we indulged regularly at the ice cream shop.

So, Sarah and I usually give our default answer of “no” to the suggestion of an ice cream shop visit. It’s not something we do very often.

A few days ago, however, we were on a long family bike ride spanning quite a few miles along the bike trails not too far from our home. It was a leisurely ride, but a pretty long one, especially for our youngest child. We stopped at a park along the way. We stopped to pick some berries along the path. We stopped for water and for a bathroom break.

At one point during the ride, it was observed that we were going to go near the ice cream shop very close to the end of our ride – in fact, we’d basically go from the ice cream shop directly to our home. So, Sarah made the suggestion that maybe we could stop for ice cream on the way home.

Naturally, our children were incredibly enthusiastic, and anticipatory talk about the ice cream shop and what flavors we got last time filled the conversation for the next few kilometers. The children were really excited for this treat at the end of our family’s long bike ride.

When we made it to the shop, we were pretty warm, so we went inside to cool off for a few minutes before ordering. The children excitedly checked out the day’s flavor offerings and made their selections, and the five of us enjoyed a cone together, talking about our bike ride and the fun we’d had over the last few hours.

We biked home slowly from the ice cream shop, our bellies full with a bit of ice cream and our minds and mouths reflecting on the wonderful day we’d spent together.

There are a couple of really key things I want to pull out of this story that relate to the value of little experiences and splurges like stopping at the ice cream shop.

First, you don’t really get much value for your dollar if a little experience or treat like this is completely ordinary and routine. If we stopped there all the time, the value we got for our $20 would not be nearly as high. It would seem completely ordinary and ho-hum – just another ice cream cone. That’s about as unenjoyable as ice cream can get. If you really want to make ice cream so routine in your life that it becomes ordinary and forgettable, then buy a big bucket and keep it in your freezer. There’s no need to pay the ice cream shop premium if it’s such an ordinary and routine experience.

The same thing holds true with all kinds of little treats and experiences. There’s no need to pay the coffee shop premium if it’s become an ordinary and routine experience – just make some at home. There’s no need to pay the book store premium if it’s become an ordinary and routine experience – just check out books at the library if you don’t already have a bunch that are unread at home. If something non-essential in your life that costs money has become ordinary and routine, then you should reboot that routine.

Second, anticipation adds a lot to a little experience. If we do decide to go to the ice cream shop, we’re far better off deciding to do so a while in advance so that there’s the joy and pleasure of anticipating the stop. We get the enjoyment of thinking ahead to the experience along with the opportunity to talk about it and share that joy. It’s fun to anticipate something, and it’s free!

However, it’s much harder to have that joy and pleasure of anticipation if the stop is a routine one, so anticipation works much, much better if it’s an occasional experience rather than a regular one. It’s hard to really enjoy the anticipation if you do that thing every single day, after all. There’s not much anticipation to a treat you indulge in several times a week.

Third, most little treats are better when they’re social. Going to the ice cream shop alone is far, far less enjoyable than doing it with your kids or with your wife or with friends. The joy in most shared experiences is much higher than the joy in a solo one.

If you’re going solo, skip the little treats and experiences. Hold off on them until you have the opportunity to indulge with a friend or with a loved one. This directly heightens the experience for both of you because it becomes a shared experience that you can talk about together.

Finally, you should keep your personal “baseline” as low as possible, so that your costs stay low and many things feel like treats. Try to keep your “routine” things as simple and inexpensive as humanly possible so that the costs don’t add up on you, plus you retain the benefit of thinking of everything better than that routine as being a treat, one worth anticipating and enjoying.

For example, ion’t indulge in the world’s greatest coffee every single morning – instead, find the most inexpensive coffee that’s “good enough” and drink that. That way, on the occasions when you do drink that expensive coffee, it’s a treat, and your daily ordinary cost is as low as possible. Don’t have a mind-blowing bowl of ice cream every evening as a treat – it will quickly seem ordinary and then you have yourself a very expensive ordinary routine and the mind-blowing ice cream won’t seem special any more.

In the end, it’s all about making little experiences in your life as meaningful as possible while simultaneously spending less money on those little experiences. Believe it or not, those two things go hand in hand.

It’s all about the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation, where if you regularly and frequently indulge in a particular splurge, then it starts to become less and less special and more and more normal and routine, then when you try to break that new routine, it feels like a loss. That’s not a winning strategy for much of anything.

Instead, spread out those little pleasurable experiences. During most of your life, stick with a very simple baseline. When you do decide to splurge, decide a bit in advance and let yourself enjoy some anticipation. Try to make the splurge social, so that it’s a shared experience with someone in your life. Also, make sure the splurge is something you’re really going to enjoy – otherwise, what’s the value in it?

You’ll find that if you use these strategies with the little pleasures in your life, they will become much more pleasurable and even meaningful, which means that you’re getting far, far more value for your splurging dollar. That $20 we spent on ice cream after our bike ride was a great $20 spent, and I don’t regret it in the least. We anticipated it together, it was a social moment, and it was a true treat because I don’t eat good ice cream all the time.

Try applying the same principles in your life with things like coffee stops or shopping trips or meals eaten out at restaurants. Cut the unnecessary parts of those experiences out of your life, and when you do indulge in those treats, make it social and anticipate it a little and really enjoy the experience. You will get far more value for your dollar and your time this way.

Good luck!