11/18/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Waiting for Merlot: Why Experiences Make Better Gifts Than Stuff

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What to get? What to get?

How are you going to continue your spotless record of finding each of the people in your life the perfect holiday gift? Or more likely, how are you going to end that losing streak? ("Wow. A toaster oven. Gee, thanks!")

Where do you turn for ideas? Try science.

Research has shown that life experience, more than things, provides the most enduring pleasure. A weekend trip to Cabo packs more of a punch than a big screen TV. Tickets to the latest Who farewell concert or Broadway revival trump the new smartphone. But a new study conducted in collaboration by Cornell University, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco reveals that waiting for those experiences makes us happy too.

The study, cleverly titled "Waiting for Merlot," finds that anticipating experiences gives us extra time to imagine all the fun we're going to have on vacation or to begin savoring the steak from that new restaurant before we even walk through the door. Anticipation drives the happiness.

So experience is, literally, the gift that keeps on giving.

"Possessions are what they are, but no one knows what the outcome of an experience will be and that makes it even more interesting and fun to anticipate," the study authors wrote. There is no 'what if?' in a TV purchase."

Those with the rarified income to shop Neiman Marcus may know that the luxury department store has it figured out. The 2014 edition of its "fantasy gifts" catalog is heavy on experience. Sure, there's a Maserati on the list, but also trips to Mardi Gras, Paris, Germany and the Oscars. (The latter is even dubbed the "Vanity Fair Academy Awards Experience.") The thrill of driving the Maserati will fade - well, eventually - but you will relive those trips in your memories for a lifetime.

For the rest of us, your nearest Costco likely has a rack filled with gift certificates to local eateries, nightclubs and theaters. Not quite an "Academy Awards Experience," but more lasting than a tie or a scarf. Even if you love toast, experiences beat appliances.

So why does a night out or a trip make a better gift than material goods? Among the myriad reasons, experiences increase happiness more than things because they give people the opportunity to bond as they share their memories. No one wants to hear about your new watch or designer clothing, but talking about your surf trip to Australia and being towed into a 30-foot wave is another thing altogether.

And it's not like material abundance has done much for us anyway. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman notes that in spite of the tripling of real purchasing power over the previous 50 years, there has not been a like increase in life satisfaction, and depression is 10 times more common. We have bigger homes and faster cars, but we're not any more content. This happiness deficit has come to be known as the "Easterbrook Paradox," named for Gregg Easterbrook's book The Progress Paradox, subtitled: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

For the holidays, Seligman says, find gifts for people you care about that will add to the amount of meaning in their lives. A few of his ideas that are guaranteed to build anticipation:

  1. Fund a visit for a friend to see someone she loves but has not seen in years.
  2. Make a "treasure chest" for your child, with coupons redeemable for one reading hour with you, a trip to a ball game with Dad, two games of Monopoly with Mom.
  3. Give a bird feeder to a friend and mount it in a place that will brighten her day every day.
  4. Give your child a complex Lego set that requires building over weeks with you.
  5. Give dance lessons or musical instrument lessons to people you love who do not dance or play music.

Here are two "bonus" ideas that yours truly implemented in the Powers household three years ago. Every year during the holiday season, our children have options. They may sacrifice one significant present they would otherwise receive in order to either (1) spend one full day with their pops, or (2) give to the needy. Specifically, they have been offered the opportunity to donate to charities that provide true life necessities - chickens, goats, a water well - to poor villagers, and another that funds loans for others, in less dire circumstances, who need a "hand up."

I assumed my stuff-loving kids would scoff at such an altruistic sacrifice. My children are great but, let's face it, kids rarely fit the Mother Teresa profile. By nature, they are only slightly less egocentric than your typical sports superstar. But, lo and behold, my kids jumped at both opportunities. That alone brought me a ton of nachas. After I got over myself (it was indeed an honor that they would choose a day with me alone rather than the new GI Joe with the "kung-fu grip"), we got to experience the joy of giving to others and that felt great.

But there's an even bigger idea at play.

"Our research is also important to society," the authors of the "Waiting for Merlot" study wrote, "because it suggests that overall well-being can be advanced by providing an infrastructure that affords experiences - such as parks, trails, beaches - as much as it does material consumption."

So the key to happiness for the holidays is more about giving your loved ones either that trip to the Grand Canyon or the opportunity to give back to the world, than it is the television on which to watch "The Travel Channel" or "The Altruism Network."

Meaningful life experience, not stuff, is the greatest gift of all.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin, both members of the Elements Behavioral Health family of treatment centers. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.