Why Experiences Don't Always Make The Best Gifts

Photographed by Shana Novak.
By now, you've probably heard it a thousand times: We should all be spending our money on experiences rather than things. But a new study reminds us that material gifts can make us happy, too. And it suggests they often make us even happier than those hasty weekend getaways do.

For the study, published online last month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers performed two experiments where they looked at how participants felt about gifts they'd received. In the first study, 67 participants were told to spend $20 on either a material gift (e.g., new earbuds) or an experiential gift (e.g., movie tickets) for themselves. Then, for the next two weeks, these participants filled out a survey every night about how happy their gifts were making them.

In the second study, 81 college students were asked to focus on one gift — material or experiential — that they'd received over their recent holiday break. This time, the researchers texted the participants questions every day for two weeks about how much happiness those gifts were bringing them.

Results showed that, although participants felt more intense happiness thanks to their experiential gifts, they felt happiness more frequently with their material gifts. Although previous research has made it clear that experiences tend to make us happier than material things (even before we get them), this study suggests that's probably an oversimplification. It's not like one type of gift makes us the happiest we've ever been while the other leaves us a disappointed shell of our former selves. Instead, the two types of gifts offer us happiness in different ways (provided, of course, that we actually like them).

And that makes sense, right? Your brother will probably have plenty of opportunities to wear that perfect band T-shirt you wrapped up for Christmas — and each time he puts it on, he may even get a little spark of joy. But if you actually take him to see the band live, because that chance doesn't come around as often, his excitement and happiness about the show will probably be much more intense than his T-shirt joy. Either way, you're the best sister, ever.

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