If you're trying to buy happiness, science has some clear advice: it's better to spend money on an experience rather than the latest iPhone. New research suggests the same is true for gifts. If the goal is to make the recipient happy, you'll have better luck with an experience. So why do most presents fit in boxes?
There are several reasons experiences make people happier, whether it's a gift or something you've bought for yourself. One issue is what researchers call adaptation: Whether it takes seconds or days, any excitement people feel about a shiny new toy tends to quickly fade away.
"We adapt to material gifts faster," says Joseph Goodman, an associate professor at Washington University who studies the effects of giving experiences as gifts. "Whereas experiences tend to be more exciting in the beginning, and we tend to take longer to adapt over time."
Experiences are also less likely to be unfavorably compared with something else, partly because they're more likely to be unique. "If I go get you new wearable technology, a FitBit, you can always compare it to a different color, or maybe a different model, or a new one will come out," he says. "But if I buy you a helicopter tour, it's kind of hard to compare that to a fruit basket or whatever else you might have gotten. And how many helicopter tours have you been on that you can compare experiences?"
Maybe even more importantly, experiences are more likely to be social. "Often it's not that I got you tickets for a play, I got both of us tickets," he says. "Those are the gifts that are memorable and that really lead to happiness. We're social beings, so social interactions have a big influence on our happiness."
In his research, Goodman is finding that gift givers don't accurately predict how happy a gift will make someone—most people assume that buying a physical gift will have better results. That's one reason why experiential gifts are uncommon. The other is practical: if you don't know someone well, it's often easier to get a more generic present.
"Experiences are great and lead to happiness because they tend to be more unique and less comparable than material goods," he says. "But what that also means is because they're more unique and less comparable, I need to know a lot about you to find an experience you'll really enjoy."
You might know someone likes music, but not know their tastes well enough to pick concert tickets you know they'll actually enjoy. So you fall back on something that seems like a safer option.
Material gifts are also more expected. "Experiences don’t fit the social norms and associations we have with gifts—we're taught that gifts should be physical objects, that they should be wrapped up," he says.
If we're very close to someone, we're more likely to be willing to break those social norms. And that's something he thinks more people should do. As more research continues to drive home the point that experiences make people happier, there are a few signs that the market is also changing, with a few new services that try to help you find experiences rather than objects.
"There's an opportunity there," says Goodman. "Right now you can go to the mall and there's a whole bunch of material things to look at and choose as a gift. Experiences require a little bit more creativity to think about—what are upcoming shows, plays—I can't just walk into a store and pick one off a shelf."