The Gift of Experience

by Kim   |   December 10, 2008


If the economy is forcing you to be more choosy about presents for the kids this year, what should you spend your money on? That one big present like a Wii, or several small things? Maybe neither, according to research by a University of Colorado at Boulder psychologist who studies happiness.

Assistant Professor Leaf Van Boven has studied what makes meaningful memories and found that life experiences tend to give us greater lasting satisfaction than material objects. So you might be better off to focus on having a holiday packed with new and fun experiences, with little if any focus on what's under the tree.

Worried about long lines at the ice rink or cold toes while tobogganing? Don't be—memory is selective, filtering out the bumps of a sled ride, leaving us with the exhilaration of coasting down the hill. "We put this very favorable spin on experiences, and that's harder to do for material possessions, because they are what they are," Van Boven says.

The Holistic Moms Network, a group of women helping mothers to support their children in mind, body, and spirit, profiled several members who were emphasizing experience over presents this year. Kristin Painter, who lives in a yurt in Wyoming, will go cross-country skiing with friends and family on Christmas day. “We would rather meet and ski instead of just sitting around for meals,” says Painter.  

Living in the city doesn't preclude active holiday activities. Kimberly Knittel hopes to go ice skating in New York City on Christmas day. Other Holistic Moms are looking to New Dream's Simplify the Holidays booklet for help on finding more of what matters.

Van Boven must have hit upon why it's always more fun to prepare a holiday meal than it is to eat it. He was speaking specifically about vacations when he wrote, "Sometimes you just want to sit down and relax and not do anything, and that's great…But the problem is if you spend all your time doing that, what are the memories that you'll have?" 

I don't think that applies perfectly to the holidays. It's possible to get into too much of a go-go-go rhythm during this season, checking off a list of relatives to visit, light displays to take in, and must-see holiday-themed shows.  Some of my best memories are of the relaxation that occurs after the presents are opened, dinner has been eaten, and the dishes have been put away.  

The above survey about kids' Christmas expectations only asked them about Xboxes and Ipods, so there's no way to know how highly they'd value a family activity in comparison. Parents can say that they have research to support them when they organize a family experience, asserting, "You'll remember this and thank me some day."