Thinking Out of the Box: Gifting Experiences

Brian Cronin

One writer explores the notion of doing—rather than unwrapping.

Unless you’re a hermit who doesn’t socialize or exchange presents, the holidays bring an onslaught of new tasks that can inspire more stress than yuletide cheer. Fortunately, the relatively new field of happiness research has simplified the whole time-consuming, labor-intensive process of gift giving. A growing body of social science has found that receiving experiences rather than possessions “tends to provide more enduring happiness,” says Psychological Science.

From trips, concerts, and fancy dinners to bungee jumping or sky-diving expeditions, experiential presents give people more pleasure than things do. And such enjoyment lasts longer, according to research done at San Francisco State University, because it begins with anticipation beforehand and persists for years afterward in happy memories, particularly if the experience is shared with loved ones.

Unwrapping gift boxes may be fun, but studies consistently show that you don’t get the same reward when you give something tangible. Even if an item is the top priority on someone’s Christmas list, it probably won’t bestow real joy for very long. In this regard, even adults are apparently a lot like six-year-olds.

Many of us Americans already own more possessions than we know what to do with, and the older we get, the more we acquire. If we have a longtime spouse or a forever friend, we’re likely to have exhausted the usual gift repertoire. I’ve had the same best friend since we were seven years old, and I’m embarrassed to think how many scarves I’ve given her over the decades. Whether you hit the moment of truth at 30, 40, 60, or 80, there comes a point when you can’t pretend you need another scarf. You don’t. Neither does anyone else you know.

Young adults haven’t been accumulating stuff for as long as their parents, but they feel even more strongly about this issue: One survey found that 78 percent of millennials value gifts of experience over material things. “The best kind of present gets you out of your routine, and preferably out of your comfort zone, which brings you closer to the person you’re sharing the experience with,” says my 26-year-old daughter. She’s given her boyfriend a sketching class in Central Park, a cooking class in which they learned to make his favorite spicy foods, a dumpling-making class at a renowned Asian restaurant to celebrate the Chinese New Year, and a pottery course in which they made ceramics on a wheel.

When my son and daughter were children, their holiday presents often included such traditions as the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, Radio City Music Hall’s annual holiday show, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, and a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, where volunteers teach children how to make origami ornaments and the spectacular Origami Holiday Tree is decorated with paper constructions that range from a Tyrannosaurus rex to Theodore Roosevelt.

Now that my offspring are adults, we’ve moved on to more-esoteric pursuits. Last Christmas, my daughter gave my son and me an oil-painting class, where we spent a hilarious evening painting Cubist portraits. All three now hang in my apartment, eliciting priceless memories that more than compensate for their considerable artistic deficiencies.

In return, my 23-year-old son, a passionate cook, gave his sister and me a knife-skills class at a culinary institute, where we spent another engrossing evening learning the tricks of the chef’s trade. My knife skills improved not at all, but my son’s are now spectacular, and the rest of us regularly enjoy what he turns out, from homemade pizzas and duck confit to fudgy cookies you’d never guess were made from freshly peeled chickpeas.

New experiences can also provide a creative way to explore an unfamiliar environment. Lured by an irresistible job offer, my son moved to Seattle this year with his girlfriend. One of their first activities was a hip-hop class he gave his dance-loving partner. If turfing, jerkin’, and krumping aren’t your style, there’s always tango or salsa.

Most parents also know that enticing experiences can be an effective bribe. Years ago, another mom told me that after your children grow up, “you have to kidnap them” to induce them to spend quality time with Mom and Dad. Irresistible vacation offers are the usual ploy, but my fellow empty nesters often devise other incentives. One friend has given her daughters sailing lessons, a private birding tour, and flower-arranging and cooking classes. Her kids knew perfectly well that all these were thinly veiled excuses to bring the whole family together again, but everyone had a good time.

Experiential giving is one of the fastest-growing segments of the gift industry, with companies like Colorado-based Cloud 9, founded in 2005, reporting 25 percent growth annually for the past five years. Forget the usual necktie or briefcase; this outfit targets the men in your life with helicopter-flying lessons.

The idea of creating indelible memories instead of saddling someone with forgettable objects has even transformed present giving at weddings. Last summer my family attended the ceremonies of several millenials whose registries included as many exotic trips as fancy china. For the Tanzanian honeymoon of one bride and groom, we could gift the couple the guides for a walking safari, breakfast in the central Serengeti, lunch in Zanzibar, dinner in Arusha, or a stay at a lodge in Tarangire National Park. We selected the latter, where the accommodations included opulently appointed king-sized beds in mosquito-netted tents.

Another set of newlyweds I know received a hot-air-balloon ride. “Experiences keep on giving in ways that a toaster oven can’t,” says the wife. “Ask anyone to recall things or trips that have given them the most pleasure, and they’re less likely to say ‘my Cuisinart’ than, ‘God, the first time I saw the Grand Canyon!’—or Petra, or Paris….”

Americans have become so well traveled that it can seem as if everyone from your dentist to your personal trainer has already been there and done that—but the Galápagos Islands won’t be any less enthralling when you finally make it there. Such judgments are, of course, a matter of personal taste. One man I know received a 50th-birthday present of an ascent of Mount Everest with his athletic adult son, who enjoys extreme sports. So do my kids, but neither amputation by frostbite nor death by avalanche represents my idea of fun. If they want to scale the highest mountains, I won’t be joining them.

However, I am happy to accommodate their taste for black-diamond runs at a fancy ski resort where I can indulge in spa time. Something for everybody, right?

Since my son moved to Seattle, I’ve become very interested in some destinations in the Pacific Northwest, including Salish Lodge, perched at the top of the spectacular Snoqualmie Falls. Moving water creates negative ions, which help elevate people’s moods and produce feelings of euphoria; studies at Columbia University have shown that negative-ion generators relieve depression as effectively as anti-depressants do for people with chronic or winter depression.

So here’s a holiday-gift question: If someone suffers from the seasonal blues, do you think they’d rather sit in a room with a negative-ion generator, unwrap a bottle of pills, or go someplace with gorgeous scenery where they can get high on the atmospheric effects of crashing surf or a thundering cataract?

While thinking that over, I’ll be waiting in a rocking chair on the porch at the top of the waterfall, drenching myself in euporia-inducing ions until my next massage appointment.