We’ve all gotten gifts we absolutely hate.
One year when Corey and I were dating, I went across the country to visit his family for Christmas. His family got me a few gifts, and I appreciated the thought. It would have been somewhat awkward to be a girlfriend of 3 years and be the only without gifts under the tree.
Then, I opened the gift from my now mother-in-law.
It was a black velvet/plush tracksuit with a pink sequined butterfly on the back. Those of you who know me know that this is clearly not my style. It was all I could do to keep a straight face and say, “thank you.” At the same time, I was thinking about how I could get out of ever wearing this.
I got lucky with this one. It didn’t fit, so I had to return it. I was able to trade it in for some simple and comfortable sweatpants. Much more my style.
I’ve also gotten many thoughtful gifts that I’ve really liked, but they were things I didn’t want or need. I didn’t know what to do with them.
It’s a Challenge to Buy Gifts For Someone Who Has Everything they Need
I don’t say these things to be ungrateful. This story serves to illustrate that many of our friends and family likely feel the same way about gifts.
According to a survey done by Finder.com, Americans drop $13 billion on gifts that the recipients don’t even want. In this survey, 56% of respondents admit to getting gifts they didn’t want.
I’m sure we’ve gotten our friends and family things that they don’t want. If we do get them a gift they do want, they might struggle with where to put it or feel like they have too much stuff.
I understand that this is a very privileged perspective. There are certainly exceptions to this. For friends or family who struggle financially, giving them something they need (or want) could be very life-giving. If someone you know doesn’t often buy things for themselves, giving a gift could be the exact right thing.
This advice is for the times when you have no idea what to buy for someone because they already have everything they need.
Reasons to Not Buy Stuff as Gifts
There are many reasons to not buy physical items as gifts.
More Stuff Does not Provide Us with More Happiness
Many people think that because physical things last for a long time that the happiness they bring us lasts just as long. This is a myth.
The reality is that the joy of a material thing fades quickly. Once our physical needs are met, we adapt to things very quickly.
This adaptation puts us on the hedonic treadmill, a theory that people “repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.”
When we get something new, we get a temporary high. Because this happiness is so fleeting, it pushes us to pursue the next bigger and better thing in life. When we achieve this, there is another temporary high. This high is then followed by adaptation, and the cycle continues.
If we don’t break the cycle, it can lead to stress and financial insecurity. If we use our money to buy more and more things, it could keep us from gaining freedom and flexibility. This freedom and flexibility could allow us to live our lives in ways that would bring us true happiness and fulfillment.
Without realizing it, what we think will make us happy actually makes us more miserable.
More Stuff Adds to the Unwanted Clutter and Stress in our Lives
It’s unsurprising to me that minimalism has gained traction over the last few years. There is a tremendous amount of overconsumption in our world today. People have realized that it hasn’t made them happy. It’s only made people more unstable financially and caused more concern about the environmental ramifications of it all.
Our houses and our minds are cluttered with so many things that we don’t want or need.
Right now, I look around my house, and I know that there are so many things that I would like to get rid of. Looking at all the clutter is overwhelming.
Clutter keeps us from living in the moment because our brains are bombarded with excessive stimuli. It makes it difficult to relax and brings up feelings of guilt and embarrassment. These things aren’t always readily apparent, and they keep us from being productive and creative.
We need to remember that giving people more stuff could add to their stress and just give them more things to get rid of.
Consider the Environmental Impacts of Buying More Stuff
The environmental impacts of our holiday season in the United States are striking. Between Thanksgiving and New Years, Americans throw away 25% more trash than the rest of the year. This extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage each year.
It comes from wrapping paper, holiday cards, ribbon, decorations, extra food, packaging from gifts, and gifts that people don’t want.
It isn’t just about reducing trash. We also need to think about how overconsumption impacts the environment.
In fact, 60% of greenhouse gas emissions result from the production and transportation of the goods that we buy.
The remedy is simple. We can reduce the number of things we buy. We can repair things that break. We get second-hand or high quality, long-lasting items when we need them.
We can apply these same lessons to gift-giving.
Why Give Experiences Instead of Stuff
There are negative impacts of consumerism on our lives. There are also positive reasons to spend money on experiences instead.
If it’s important to give a gift, consider giving an experience instead.
Spending money on experiences actually brings people greater long-term happiness.
Experiences Bring Longer-Lasting Happiness
This seems counterintuitive because experiences only last a moment. The feeling of happiness actually lasts longer with experiences.
As we anticipate and plan for experiences, our happiness level increases.
When I go on vacation, I get a lot of joy from researching travel destinations and planning activities. When I go to a concert, it’s fun to listen to the artist’s albums in advance of the concert. Then, I will know all the words and can sing along. These are just two examples of anticipatory happiness.
Reflection on the event also brings us feelings of joy. Even if an experience was not completely positive, we often remember it with nostalgia.
For example, a few years ago, we rented a cabin in Maine. During that week, it was in the high 90s for a few days, and the cabin didn’t have air conditioning. At the time, we were miserable and complaining about the heat. Yet, this is not what we remember about this vacation. We remember relaxing, spending time in the water, reading, and planning the ways we wanted to improve our lives.
It’s no wonder that the feelings of happiness related to experiences last longer.
Shared Experiences Connect Us More than Shared Consumption
Having shared experiences connects us to the people around us. When we have a shared experience, we can use it to build deeper relationships. If we do a cooking class with a group of friends, we will not only have a lot of fun at the moment. We also might decide to get together again soon to cook together again.
Even if we don’t do the same experience at the same time as someone, shared experiences can still connect us. If Corey finds out that a friend recently went to a game of a sports team he loves, it allows them to make a connection. If I learn that someone has seen my favorite band in concert, I will be interested to find out what other awesome and obscure music they could share with me.
The simple fact of owning the same type of car, kitchen appliance, or technology gadget doesn’t bring the same amount of connection.
Experiences Become Part of Our Identities
When we spend money or are gifted experiences, these experiences can actually become part of our identities.
If someone goes sky-diving, being brave and taking risks could become part of their identity. If I take a class to learn how to make sushi, I build both my cooking skills and my cultural awareness. Sports lessons or a health membership build our identity as someone who prioritizes health and well-being.
Experiences are More Likely to be Unique
The final reason why it can be better to give experiences as gifts is that experiences are more likely to be unique. Since experiences are often new or different, they are less likely to be unfavorably compared to something else.
Because there are so many variations of every physical thing in the world, it’s easy to compare them. Experiences will always be unique. Even though I’ve snorkeled in Hawaii and Mexico, they were different experiences and difficult to compare.
One year for the holidays, we paid for our full group of friends to do an escape room together. Some of us had never done an escape room before. None of us had ever done this escape room before. We had a ton of fun, and we still talk about how we got the record for the shortest time with no clues.
22 Experience Gift Ideas For the Holidays
There are many different experiences that you can give as gifts. This will not be an exhaustive list, but I did try to find a wide variety of experiences that would appeal to different people.
If you would like to give the gift of an experience this year, look through this list to see if anything jumps out at you.
- Tickets to a sporting event
- Manicure and/or Pedicure
- Cooking Class
- Bar Crawl
- Escape Room
- Pottery Making or Painting
- Dinner or a Gift Certificate for Dinner
- Tickets to a Concert, Comedy or improv show
- Movie Tickets
- Museum Passes
- Passes to your local Aquarium
- Lodging for a weekend away
- Whale watch tour (or other local gems)
- Beer brewing class
- Dance or music classes
- Tasting at a Winery, Cidery, or Brewery
- Pay for the entrance to a race for a friend who is enthusiastic about fitness
- Rock Climbing Session
- Kayaking, sailing, or stand-up paddleboarding
- Give to charity on someone’s behalf
There are so many options of experience gifts. I hope this list of experience gift ideas sparked ideas for you.
Consider the Value Your Gift Will Provide to the Recipient
It’s important to take happiness and environmental factors into consideration when choosing to give a gift. Making sure your gift will provide value to the recipient should be our main goal. Luckily, these two priorities often will align.
What cool experiences have you given or received?