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By Gary Belsky
December 17, 2014
Momcilo Grujic—Getty Images

Scrambling frantically to buy meaningful gifts for Christmas or Hanukah? Well, you can relax (a little). Pleasing those near and dear to you this holiday season need not involve any last-minute shopping mall runs or late-night web crawls.

All you need is a reasonable sense of what your intended gift recipients like (or might like) to do with their time. That’s because, according to a growing body of social science research, the best way to increase the enjoyment, satisfaction and general happiness of your loved ones (not to mention office mates) is to give them real-life experiences.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, depending on the gift-receiver in question, it could mean almost any kind of in-person activity, adventure, or escapade, from concert tickets to restaurant meals, from guitar or cooking lessons to museum or amusement park passes, from rafting trips to factory tours to island getaways. “The happiness we get from our experiences give us more enduring pleasure,” says Cornell psychology professor Tom Gilovich, who since 2003 has been exploring the distinction between material and experiential purchases.

Now, in a new paper, “A Wonderful Life: Experiential Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Gilovich and colleagues Amit Kumar and Lily Jampol review the considerable research into this intriguing subject over the past decade. And because few folks have the leisure to pore over academic studies any time of year—let alone while racing to cross names off holiday gift lists—I’ll summarize Gilovich & Co.’s findings. (Think of it as’s gift to you!)

Here, then, are just a handful of the many reasons why experiences provide greater satisfaction and happiness than material goods:

1) Experiences are more social. In other words, we are more likely to connect with people when we’re actually doing something, rather than simply owning something. And humans, being highly social creatures, are generally happier when connecting with other humans. To be sure, some material gifts—video game consoles, for example, or sports equipment—can effectively be owned privately and contribute to public engagement at the same time, but for the most part having something is a solitary experience. Doing something is generally not.

2) Experiences remain special for longer. Humans are prone to habituation, which is one reason why people who suffer great tragedies wind up happier than they predict they will be soon after the loss occurs. We get used to things, which is good when it comes to negative events. But the flip side of this tendency is that it applies to positive events as well. That’s especially true with material goods. As we get used to the things we own they provide us with less joy and satisfaction. As Gilovich explains: “When faced with a decision of a new sofa or taking a trip somewhere, people often say to themselves, ‘I better buy the sofa because at least I’ll always have it. But the trip will come and go before I know it.’ The material possession, in other words, seems like a better investment. But when it comes to increasing our happiness and sense of well-being, research suggests just the opposite. We quickly adapt to the new sofa, but the pleasure we get from our experiences live on in the stories we tell and the memories we cherish.”

3) Experiences are unique. The down side of being social is that we routinely compare ourselves to others — the proverbial keeping up with the Joneses. One reason experiences remain special in our memories long after they have occurred—and therefore continue to make us happy—is because they are generally not diminished by the experiences of others. You might own a fancier smartphone than I do, which detracts from the enjoyment I derive from mine; but the trip I took to New Hampshire was unique because that adventure involved me! You may have stayed in a four-star hotel, but you didn’t enjoy the quaintness of my three-star inn.

4) Experiences help us define who we are. “We are what we do, not what we have,” write Gilovich, Kumar and Jampol. And what they mean is this: While it’s true that certain material goods—a parent’s ring, a rare watch—contribute to our sense of identity, most people craft their psychological identity from their exploits and actions, not their possessions. In one study, for example, Gilovich found that people feel more similar to someone who makes the same experiential purchase than they do to someone who makes the same material purchase. In another study, participants listed the five most significant material purchases of their lives and the five most important experiential ones. They were then asked to summarize their “life story,” using one or more of their purchases in the narrative. Result: People were twice as likely to mention experiences than possessions.

This last point is especially interesting to consider when buying gifts for children. You are more likely to affect the future happiness of a child—who she becomes and how she sees herself—with positive experiences than with expensive toys.

Even better, you’ll save time and money this year by not having to wrap so many presents. A gift certificate fits quite nicely in an envelope.