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The Best Holiday Gift: A Shared Experience

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You’ll never reach the top level in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, if you concern yourself with your possessions. If you focus on acquiring gadgets, showering your children with toys, or achieving other materialistic pursuits, if you do so while neglecting the pursuit of including satisfying experiences in your life, you can never reach your full potential.

Even thinking about experiences beyond base needs is a luxury when abiding by Maslow’s theory, because pursuing fulfilling experiences requires discretionary income or available cash. Anyone who hasn’t been able to meet the lower-level requirements in the hierarchy may need to devote all resources to health and safety. For those of us in the developed world who have benefited from a society that allows successful people to do as they choose with their financial surplus, we often face questions about how to spend that money with an eye towards increasing happiness.

Wrapped GiftAs I’ve found myself in a more comfortable financial situation over the last decade — and that comfort comes from an increased income and an ability to save for the future without sacrificing too much of my present — I’ve begun trying to find more ways to use surplus income (after meeting savings goals) to enjoy my life today. Financial writers often get caught up with the idea that people need to save as much money as possible for the future, but once there is some comfort with planning, there has to be an opportunity to enjoy life today.

Once my finances were on a solid path, I decided I was comfortable increasing today’s expenses. The gateway for me was most likely moving into a new apartment. If my only income came from my day job, I might not have been able to comfortably move from a small apartment to a nicer, larger apartment without making sacrifices somewhere else. By moving into the newer apartment, I recognized that my income stream outside of my day job would be fairly steady, and that I had an emergency fund for back-up in the event of a disaster. I also accumulated things. With my day job, I was able to afford cable again, but with extra income, I was able to justify high-definition service and a new, high-definition television.

I was able to afford to buy cameras, lenses, and other photography equipment (several of which I still purchased used to save money), and to explore this hobby further. This gets into the topic at hand: experiences vs. things. While photography equipment consists of things, they are items that allow me to explore a hobby — or possibly a future business — and create experiences for myself. I attended classes at the local arts council to further develop my skills.

A study from 2003 building on prior research about materialism explains that using money to acquire experiences increases long-term happiness than using money to acquire objects. Here are some of the results:

As anticipated, respondents asked to evaluate an experiential purchase indicated that it made them happier than did those asked to evaluate a material purchase. Respondents also indicated that experiential purchases were better financial investments than material purchases. Participants indicated that, compared with material purchases, experiential purchases made them happier, contributed more to their happiness in life, and represented money better spent. Respondents were also less inclined to say that the money spent on experiences could have been better spent elsewhere than the money spent on material possessions.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThe authors of the 2003 study also offer suggestions for the causes of these results. Why do experiential purchases result in happiness more than material purchases?

  • Experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation. As time passes, view of history becomes rosier.
  • Experiences are more central to one’s identity. We are the sum of our experiences; people rarely identify with the items they’ve collected around their house as much as they identify with experiences like travel, operating their own business, and spending time with family.
  • Experiences have greater social value. People like sharing and talking about their experiences, and this type of discussion fosters better relationships than talking about possessions.

A follow-up study in 2010 goes further to explain why experiences are more satisfying. This study found that it was easy to compare a purchased item, such as a high-definition television, with other similar items at the time of purchase and looking back. When comparing experiences, such as a family trip to Disney World, it’s much more difficult to make effective comparisons. Also, consumers are more likely to try to get the best deal when shopping for items with a strong field of comparable items but are more likely to satisfice when deciding to purchase an experience. Among other reasons, the researchers also determined that consumers are more likely to compare their material purchases with others’ purchases while have a difficult time doing the same for experiential purchases.

You may be looking forward to the holidays, wondering what type of gifts would make your family and friends happiest. You can always play to the utilitarian point of view by purchasing gifts that the recipient might need, but to have the greatest impact, consider finding a way to offer an experience that everyone would enjoy. The benefits might not be immediate, but an experience could create memories that outshine this year’s hot Christmas toy or latest Apple product for years to come.

Some experiential holiday gifts come to mind.

  • A weekend getaway. Spend the weekend in a nearby city to save on transportation costs, and explore the town. This is something I did this past weekend in Philadelphia. It wasn’t a gift, but I am sure my girlfriend and I are going to remember our scary experience at the Eastern State Penitentiary for the rest of our lives.
  • Dinner and a Broadway show. Good food and entertainment combine to make lasting memories that enhance happiness. For those who attend Broadway shows more than once a year, find a way to make it more memorable, perhaps with a backstage tour, VIP seating, or meeting the cast.
  • Long-distance travel. It’s often less expensive to travel outside of the country than to travel across. Within the United States, there are almost endless opportunities for unique travel experiences as well. I will always remember the time I spent exploring Death Valley with my family.
  • An exciting activity. My girlfriend seems interested in skydiving and hot-air-ballooning. I’m not a big fan of either of these activities because I would like to live for a long time, but I know these are activities that would make her happy if she were to live to tell me about them.

Consider leaving behind the material this holiday season and increasing someone’s long-term happiness by engaging in an activity or experience the memory of which will last a lifetime and become more favorable as time passes.

Photo: comedynose
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003 [pdf] and 2010 [pdf]

Updated April 13, 2016 and originally published November 15, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

My wife has taken her mother in law to a play or other type of show a couple of times in the past. They still talk about it a lot and have created great memories from it. Could she tell you some of the ‘stuff’ that she got her for other gifts? Probably but it might take a while to think about. It’s so true that experiences mean more than anything else. Memories last forever. Stuff doesn’t.

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avatar 2 shellye
avatar 3 Ceecee

This is so true. I treasure some of the Broadway shows I’ve seen. Now you’ve challenged me to find experience gifts on a budget…..hmmmmm…….that’s difficult, because things like this tend to be rather expensive.

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avatar 4 qixx

Show or concert tickets usually are expensive. You just have to be more creative; like tickets to a school production over Broadway. Or plan and put on a play or puppet show for a children’s organization. Difficult but not impossible.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

My wife and I oftentimes substitute shared events for Christmas presents. Although we will buy each other a small gift to open with family on Christmas, this year we’re taking an 11 day cruise to the Caribbean and Panama Canal next month. Using what would have wound up a part of the Christmas budget to help fund the cruise makes it easier.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

Sharing an experience is the best holiday idea. My sister got the hot Broadway tickets — Hugh Jackman on Broadway — and invited me to go. I’ll fly up from Florida for the weekend, and it will cost me some money, but the memory of sharing that show with her will definitely be worth it.
Last Christmas I bought tickets to a Capitol Steps show for my parents, and they still talk about it. Stuff we forget; experiences we remember.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Family vacations were always experiences to remember. It wasn’t some expensive trip! We shared a house on the beach with some friends and their kids or we went with friends and their kids to Lake Meade. Those trips or vacations are more precious to me because we experienced together.

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avatar 8 wylerassociate

as I get older, i’m less consumed with getting the latest ipad, iphone, HDTV but rather traveling to different places and enjoying the days that I am on vacation or weekend getaways.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Oh boy, now I’m conflicted. I did buy the Bluetooth speakers for our cruise to play the music on my wife’s iPad. Beats the heck out of the elevator music they port to your room. ;-)

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Love that idea. Doesn’t have to be crazy expensive either, inviting friends over for holiday cookie making party for example. Really fun and really productive :)

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avatar 11 lynn

I went to a cookie exchange years ago. Now if you know me, you’d know I CRS. But I remember every cookie and friend who showed up. We had a great time and our kids bonded even further.

My experiences remembered are times with family and friends. Getting me to travel is difficult. I would like to see the Italian countryside though. I’m just not sure there’s enough valium to get me on a plane for 5 hours. LOL

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avatar 12 Anonymous

We’ve asked the grandparents to give experience gifts to our kids. My mother-in-law has given swimming lessons for the past four years. It’s less clutter and they have so much fun! Plus, they’re learning a skill they can use for the rest of their lives, which is so much better than a toy that will be broken in a few months.

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avatar 13 Donna Freedman

Flexo: You can get skydiving et al. through social media discounts, e.g., Groupon. Just sayin’.
Another experiential gift I’d suggest is an annual membership to the person’s favorite museum, or a season ticket to a performing arts series. The person gets to go more than once and the organization benefits with the extra cash. You might even get a discount in the gift shop. :-)

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avatar 14 Luke Landes

Great idea with the membership/season tickets. I actually did that once for someone many years ago and forgot about it until now. (I’m good at erasing certain swaths of my life from my memory sometimes.)

As far as the skydiving goes, whether for full price or half off, I try not to send people I generally like to their imminent death. :-) That’s just me, though.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

We (hubby and I) need to treat ourselves to some more experience gifts a great way to enrich one’s life.

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