Who would spend money to navigate a set of randomly greased monkey bars over a pit of ice-cold mud? But that insanity, and the other Tough Mudder obstacles, offer you an “experiental high,” a great story, and a bond with other racers. The improbable success of Tough Mudder helps prove why experiences (rather than material things) are worth your money. From my book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.
Shortly after graduating from Harvard Business School, Will Dean started Tough Mudder, a company that stages races with obstacles designed by the British Special Forces. Dean describes the events as “Ironman meets Burning Man.” And the ten-mile Tough Mudder race is “not your average lameass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race.” Never complained about your lame-ass mud run being too average? Clearly, Tough Mudder isn’t for everyone. Competitors can display their mudderness to others by purchasing paraphernalia like T-shirts and tattoos. And then there are the headbands. Rather than medals, runners are given orange headbands and encouraged to wear them the next day, exchanging high-fives and knowing nods with fellow Tough Mudders on sidewalks and subways. This fuzzy piece of anti-bling creates community among participants, and this sense of social connection helps to account for not only the success of Dean’s business, but also the value of experiences more broadly.*
Research shows that experiences provide more happiness than material goods in part because experiences are more likely to make us feel connected to others. Intuitively recognizing the critical role of connection, Will Dean has crafted his business to maximize the social aspects of the Tough Mudder experience. At the start line, runners stand side by side and recite the Tough Mudder Pledge, promising to help others and put teamwork and camaraderie ahead of their own finish time. This philosophy extends beyond words. Some of the obstacles are designed to be nearly impossible for one individual to surmount alone. When Tough Mudder posted a message on Facebook announcing an event at a bar in New York City, more than six hundred people showed up—with just one day’s notice. While Dean says that most people sign up for their first Tough Mudder event to give themselves something to train for (or because “they want to play in the mud”), it’s the social connection that keeps them coming back. And they come back in droves. Over half the people who complete a Tough Mudder event return for another, often bringing friends as new recruits. Despite beginning with an advertising budget of only $8,000, the company amassed more than 800,000 Facebook fans in just two years, and now hosts sold-out events all over North America, with new events scheduled in cities from Sydney to Tokyo.
The viral nature of Tough Mudder also grows from another source: its capacity to provide participants with a good story. Explaining the disillusionment that prompted him to start Tough Mudder, Dean says, “The thing I really disliked about triathlons and marathons was that the only real arbiter of how well you did was your time. People ask, ‘What time did you run?’ There really isn’t anything else left to ask. Here, you can ask, ‘What did you think of the burning obstacle?’”
Even if you’re not into running through burning hay bales or sliding headfirst into a pond that one blogger described as smelling like “a thousand years of fermented goose poop,”experiential purchases make better stories than material purchases. When researchers at Cornell University asked pairs of strangers to discuss purchases made with the intent to increase their happiness, those who talked about experiential purchases enjoyed the conversation more.They even liked their partner more than those who exchanged stories about material purchases. Individuals who prioritize experiential purchases are seen as open-minded, intelligent, and outgoing.
*The importance of social connection also helps to explain why moving to a nicer house often fails to enhance happiness. Fancier houses may not make you any happier unless they have nicer people inside them. In the Harvard housing study, students’ overall happiness was unrelated to the physical features of the houses, but the quality of social life in the houses did predict students’ happiness (and interestingly, some of the houses with the least desirable physical characteristics were known for their social traditions, like “Tequila Tuesdays”).