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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Research-Backed Way to Have a Better Weekend (and Happier Life)

Toward the end of 2013, I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before. As I looked back on the year, the one thing that jumped out at me was that although my salary had increased exponentially over the last few years, my happiness had not.

I had a closet full of clothes and a condo full of stuff, but what I longed for most was experiences. The experiences I was hungry for ran the gamut from simple—like taking a weekend walk with a friend—to those that would take more money and planning, like a two-week trip to Turkey.

And I’m not alone in this feeling. Studies have shown that spending money on experiences rather than material things makes us a whole lot happier. “One of the most common things people do with their money is get stuff,” explains Michael Norton, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. “But we have shown…in research that stuff isn't good for you. It doesn't make you unhappy, but it doesn't make you happy. But one thing that does make us happy is an experience.”

Yet we often seek the immediate gratification of a feel-good purchase over a life-enriching experience because, well, it’s easier. Because it always seems so hard to find the time and money to have experiences. And because—let’s face it—we humans aren’t known to be the most rational of creatures.

But recently, I decided to make experiences a priority. And once I did, finding the time for them got easier. Coffee with a friend at our usual spot turned into a snowy walk in Central Park. A date with my husband to the museum became a walking tour of the Upper East Side. A co-working date with colleagues morphed into a tell-all lunch where each of us asked for, and gave each other, advice.

My experience experiment is not about being an ascetic and rejecting modern comforts—it’s about understanding what makes life richer and getting more “bang for my buck” out of life. So, if you, too, could use a little pick-me-up, consider skipping that $59.99 skirt at H&M (or any number of small, not-essential purchases), and setting aside that same budget to spend on experiences. That $100 per week you spent on outfits or workday lunches could turn into a $400 per month splurge on an unforgettable weekend or a fabulous cooking class. Or one of these other experiences you’ll be talking about for years to come:

1. Discover Your City's Secrets

Every city has its mysteries, and amazing experiences can always be found just by uncovering a few for yourself. For example, even most New Yorkers, who pride themselves on knowing everything about the Big Apple, probably don’t know where to find remnants of the Berlin Wall. And who knew there was a glass museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts? Not to mention a bowling ball beach in California.

Spend your Saturday taking a tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, posing for a photo in front of Indian Echo Taverns in Pennsylvania or exploring an automated Wild West town populated by robots in Buffalo Ridge, South Dakota. For ideas for memorable experiences in your city, try a company like SideTour that plans unique excursions. Recent options include designing your own letterpress poster in Seattle and exploring a beehive with a master beekeeper in Atlanta.

2. Tap Your Inner Foodie

If there’s nothing that you love more than food, look for ways to experience it in a whole new way. For example, my husband and I started throwing monthly dinners in 2013, and we found it was our favorite part of the week. We made it fun by curating the guest list—inviting eight friends who didn’t know each other and prompting deeper conversations by asking each person to share one thing that no one else at the table would guess about him or her. Not only has this icebreaker helped melt away the initial getting-to-know-each-other uncomfortability, but we have learned a ton about our friends in the process.

Need to hone your cooking skills before you invite people over? Try a class at a local cooking school, like Charleston Cooks in Charleston, South Carolina. Classes like Taste of the Low Country and Breakfast in Bed are just a few of the slew you can choose from. Or, if you are looking for a whole new group of friends to eat a meal with, try EatWith, a new platform that allows you to dine in strangers’ homes around the world.

3. Take a Trip

Vacations are always life-changing experiences, but they need not be two-week affairs in foreign countries. Try an overnighter to a nearby town (San Francisco, for example, has tons of destinations offering wine tasting, fabulous food, and walkable downtowns just an hour or two away), an outdoor trek (San Ysidro Ranch, just outside LA, offers scenic hiking trails, a wood-burning fireplace, and a hilltop pool), or a hot springs getaway (yep, they’re all over the country).

Want to really get out of town? Believe it or not, REI offers a range of experiential tours that will allow you to knock a few items off your bucket list early—ever dreamed of cycling through Saigon? Now’s your chance.

4. Get Outside

Even your daily exercise routine can be turned into an experience, if you find ways to take it up a notch. For example, try classes like Flywheel or aerial yoga that get your heart rate up and push your body and mind to a whole new level.

If you’re not afraid of the Polar Vortex winter hell, join a hiking club like the Appalachian Mountain Club, where groups of outdoorsy types go on regular hikes to enjoy nature year-round. As things warm up, try kayaking: The Downtown Boathouse in Manhattan offers free kayaking classes and short trips for those who prefer the open water to the crowded streets of a bustling city. Or, kayak alongside dolphins in Coastal Carolina where you’ll explore the longest stretch of uninhabited coastline on the Eastern seaboard.

If your palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it, that’s a good sign. Getting outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens.

Photo of woman with bike of Shutterstock.