HEALTHY LIVING

Experiences Better Than Stuff: Why We Love To Do More Than We Love To Have

12/22/2012 10:21 pm ET

The research is in: It's better to do than to have.

As many families across the country gather to unwrap the presents under the tree, they may find the gathering more valuable than the items. That doesn't sound like a grand revelation -- how many times have you heard a parent, sibling or spouse say some variation of: "All I want for Christmas is you?"

Now that I'm a parent, there aren't many "things" I want. Most of what I need I can buy for myself and I get more pleasure out of giving gifts to my kids than I do in opening my own presents. I'm happy on Christmas morning wearing comfy pajamas, drinking hot cocoa and watching the boys rip through ribbons and bows.

But research confirms that objects are only capable of making us happy for up to three months. By contrast, the memories generated by an experience far outlast a few months.

"One of the reasons that people get more value out of experiences is that experiences are more connected to their identities. Even if we really like our material goods, they remain at some remove from the self. They aren't a part of you," explains Tom Gilovich, who is a professor of psychology at Cornell University. "If you apply that to Christmas, when you think about Christmas and connections to family and friends -- your social network is who you are, things you get are nice, but ancillary."

What's more, our perspective shifts with time, explains Gilovich, causing us to gloss over the details and remember the overarching feeling, which often means less room for disappointment.

"With experiences, we relate at more abstract level and that makes them more enduringly enjoyable. We buy material goods for things like the number of pixels and the details really matter. The details really don't matter as much if you go to Hawaii -- even if the hotel isn't as nice as you expected, you get over details and surprises and enjoy."

Similarly, the yoga pants might not be the Lululemon ones you were coveting, but chances are the experience of sitting around together isn't defined by the quality of the chocolate in your cocoa of the softness of the couch.

That doesn't mean you can't give each other gifts -- or that gift-giving is inherently inferior to experiences. For example, experiential presents still require effort, thought and generosity. But the good news is that those who buy experiences -- say cooking classes, weekend spa trips or tickets to museums or ballet -- are also happier than those who buy objects. And, for receivers of experiential gifts, there's good news for you as well: those who prefer activities to objects are seen as more attractive by their peers.

How are you and your family celebrating the day? Tell us in the comments!

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