For decades, the “ideal American life” was the sum of a few vital parts: a spouse, two and a half well-adjusted kids, a loyal golden retriever and (of course) a house with a white picket fence.
Unsurprisingly, the millennial generation (infamous for “rule shattering”) has left this middle-class status symbol in its jet-setting dust, trading those iconic status symbols of suburban family life for an Instagram feed filled with colorful adventures.
This isn’t to say that millennials don’t live in the suburbs or buy homes. They’re actually doing both. But these achievements are not the status symbols they were for our parents and grandparents.
Just scroll through Instagram and it quickly becomes clear: traipsing through Switzerland or Thailand has way more social caché than owning a home with killer curb appeal.
The data backs it up. One recent study by Eventbrite showed that 78 percent of millennials would rather spend money on an experience or event (think: concerts or plane tickets) than possessions.
But even if we don’t want to collect objects as much as past generations have, an element of conspicuous consumption remains.
“We have competing values: the idea of mindfulness and self-care, but also status,” psychotherapist Rachel Zar said. “We are a more public generation… Every moment of our lives is documented. There’s this idea of approval that’s really prevalent and hard to get away from.”
Psychotherapist and writer Satya Doyle Byock believes our hunger for experiences is a reaction to the way we were raised.
“Millennials were trained to reach for the best grade, the best score, the lowest weight… The goal was always to be the best.”
And after staring at screens and working overtime all week, this generation craves a way to tune out the noise.
“As millennials have gained agency in their adult years, they’ve found they’re hungry for actual experiences,” Byock said.
That’s why backpacker and writer Emily Pennington loves heading out on the trail for the weekend.
“I think that so much of our lives these days is spent looking at screens and managing all this technology and juggling this fast-paced, staccato existence,” she said. “It’s really nice to completely unplug on a weekend and literally just wander down a trail and not have to worry about your phone.”
The problem that Byock sees? It’s not quite so easy to “punch out” of the productivity and achievement mindset as soon as you’re ready to go on vacation, or even just take a few days off.
Exchange the laptop case for a backpack and you’re still likely to treat your hike like something that can be maximized.
“Pure enjoyment seems selfish or self-involved to a millennial,” she said. “So they have a tendency to take pure experience and shove it into some sort of quantitative or product-oriented result.
“Rather than the euphoria of experiencing life and being in the world and enjoying the inner world, some millennials are trying to have the ‘best adventure’… and trying to show their followers what a great adventure they’re having by posting it.”
If we’re not careful, a “relaxing” trip to the beach can become an exhausting attempt to document it and make sure everyone back home knows how great it is.
“It’s one thing to post ‘#mindfulness,'” Zar said. “It’s another thing to really check in with yourself and say, ‘Am I experiencing this? Am I more concerned with getting the perfect image of the sunset, or am I basking in the rays of the sun and really noticing what it feels like and taking in the beauty all around me?’”
As easy as this can be to condemn, Byock says millennials should be cut some slack.
“We fault millennials for their social values, but those are the priorities we’ve raised them with,” she said. “So whose fault is it? We’re constantly making fun of them when maybe they’re trying their best to go enjoy the world.”
There’s nothing inherently problematic about wanting to show what you’ve been up to on vacation, Zar said. But understanding your own goals is crucial to setting parameters on your technology and social use while you’re trying to experience new things.
“I think it’s important to ask the ‘why’ behind everything you’re doing,” she said. “What is your intention? Are you looking to have a life-changing experience, to be in the moment, to let go of the stress of life for a while… or are you looking to show off?”
You can also have it both ways.
“You can share your photos and also you can take an hour a day to put your phone away and experience the culture or nature or the adrenaline or whatever it is,” Zar said. “Take your mindful moments, but it doesn’t have to be extreme.”
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).