I often hear, particularly at Stanford, from people who have built a life philosophy around “living for experiences.” The philosophy goes something like this: Life is finite and transient and ultimately lacks a defined meaning. As young people with so much of the world to explore, our goal ought to be gaining as many unique, novel and sometimes wild experiences while we can. We can achieve meaning in our lives, as the theory goes, through exposing ourselves to as many aspects of human existence as possible.
In many ways, I agree with this philosophy. College is the peak time in our lives to try new things, push ourselves into unfamiliar situations and engage with the world’s diversity in all its dimensions. I also endorse the (rather depressing) conclusion that life is not inherently meaningful, so we must create meaning for ourselves.
Where I differ from my experience-driven peers is in my evaluation of how to give life meaning and what qualities make up a good life. Isolated experiences may be inspiring, mind-blowing and beautiful, but they last only a few hours, a few days at most. A concert, a hiking trip, a midnight trip to the coast to watch the stars — all incredible and worthwhile experiences but all transitory. You can’t sustain wellbeing on a one-time trip to go skydiving or light fireworks in the middle of nowhere.
Experiences are important, no doubt, but they must be supplemented by low-excitement, long-term sources of happiness and meaning in order to have a good life. In my own life, I find this stable happiness largely through relationships and places. For example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have lunch with my best friend at the same time in Casper Dining. We don’t add much excitement to each other’s lives, but we discuss all of the exciting, stressful and variable things that do go on and provide an anchoring support system for each other regardless of the week’s events.
I find a similar sense of low-energy contentment in my walks around campus. Almost every day, I wander some portion of Campus Drive; this season, I admire the falling leaves. There’s nothing novel or stimulating about Campus Drive, but its familiarity gives it a homey quality and allows me time to slow down and collect my thoughts.
It’s important to meet new people and have fascinating interactions with strangers, but it’s also important — arguably much more so — to have close friends who stick around month after month, year after year, who may not always be entertaining but will be there when you need support. It’s wonderful to travel and see all the corners of the globe but also necessary to establish places where you feel at home, unexcited but utterly familiar and safe. It’s about balance: coupling the novel experiences with familiar ones and building a foundation of intimacy that you can go back to in between the highs of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
I see many people veer too far to one side or the other of this equation and most often towards the experience side. They go to parties, events in San Francisco, on wild adventures and with a vast network of interesting people, but they struggle to find closeness and meaning in the quiet moments of life. Outside of their transient experiences, life lacks a sense of continuity and narrative.
Think of life like a novel: You want to see action scenes and climactic moments, but in order for a novel to have substance, emotional appeal and meaning, it must have dull moments: moments that set the scene, build connections between characters, explain the buildup to and aftermath of intense moments. In fact, the intense moments are only intense because of the buildup and aftermath; a disconnected series of wild events would get boring very quickly.
So, if you are an experience-oriented person, I encourage you to consider the balance of novelty and familiarity that you strike in your life and how your place on the spectrum influences your wellbeing. Are you too heavy on one-time experiences? Too comfortable in familiar but dull patterns of life? Do you cultivate enough close relationships while putting yourself out there to meet new people and learn about their stories?
Having experiences creates momentary meaning, but having a narrative thread to your life — a narrative composed of people, places and activities — is imperative for finding a deeper, temporal meaning that follows you from the highs to the lows. This is the kind of meaning that humanity is built on, the kind of meaning that we’ve spent thousands of years pondering, practicing and recording. It is why Zen masters may spend hours meditating or why spending time with your family is such a strong predictor of mental and physical health. So give value to this quiet sense of contentment. The wild experiences may be to die for, but the stuff in between is the stuff worth living for.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.