Why experience gifts make you happier

The best gifts don’t always come bound in shiny wrapping paper, a box or even with a card. Increasingly, studies are finding we are better off giving someone an experience than a physical present

Just last year, Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar from Cornell University in the USA found that “experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having)”. This wasn’t just based on having a gift or experience but the anticipation associated with it. People simply get more excited before, and about, an experience than they do a new dinner set or antique clock.

When you’re thinking about gifts for Christmas, consider buying your friend an Art Tour of Melbourne  ather than a painting, take your partner to an American Smoking BBQ Cooking Class instead of wrapping up some barbecue tongs. Buying someone an experience is easy but has a high impact.

Experiences stay with us. You might get some initial excitement when you unwrap you new iPhone or stylish shirt, but if you go zip-lining through the treetops of a forest you are likely to be thinking (and talking!) about it for years to come. You can’t say that about possessions – we tend to have very short attention spans for people banging on about all the things they own, but we're more interested in hearing about the cool things they’ve done.

Even a bad experience is a good story. Think about your travel stories: the tales about missed trains and rained-out beach holidays take pride of place next to the ones about standing at Angkor Wat in Cambodia to watch the sun rise. We just love discussing our experiences. 

“My boyfriend once bought me an experiential gift,” says childcare coordinator Adrienne Smith. “Then I saw we were approaching an animal sanctuary and my heart sank. He had arranged for me to feed a bunch of lemurs, inside their cage. Little did he know I was not the biggest fan of primates after being attacked by monkeys in Bali a couple of years before. We have had a lot of laughs about the lemur feeding over the years, because despite this memorable misstep, we got married!”

Experiences can strengthen a bond or friendship. Whether it’s with a friend or lover, sharing new experiences can help you get to know each other and forge common memories. Doing things together is a great way to break the ice in a new relationship or freshen up an old one.

You are less likely to compare. It’s very easy to compare items. If someone buys you a coffee maker, you can find yourself in a shop wondering whether it was the best on offer. But if that same person sends you whizzing over the city of Melbourne in a helicopter, you’re far less likely to make comparisons.

Experiences become part of you. Fashions change, gadgets break and computers become obsolete in the blink of an eye, but an experience becomes part of who you are through stories and memories. What are we if not the sum of our experiences?

There’s a social component. We are social beings, so the idea of going abseiling with a friend makes us much happier than sitting at home with a pile of gifts. When you go on an experience like this, you’ll meet a group of like-minded folk.

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