Consider experiences, not things, for holiday gifts

Looking for that perfect gift for a friend or family member this holiday season? Consider giving a life experience, says SF State's Ryan Howell.

Life experiences offer an opportunity for personal connection that material items may not, said Howell, an associate professor of psychology who studies the link between purchasing and happiness and the founder of Beyond the Purchase. The key is to make sure the experience includes two essential ingredients: that it shows you know the person well and that it brings you and your loved one closer together.

Photo of holiday shopping bags

"If I were to send you to the Giants' first game next year, but you don't care about baseball, and I'm not planning on going with you, we don't have either ingredient," he said. "Now you may not necessarily hate the gift but you're not going to like it either. But if you were a big Giants fan and I bought us tickets together, we can start to anticipate it and our excitement builds and it becomes a really great gift."

Howell's research has shown that, in general, people who spend their discretionary income on experiences versus material items tend to be happier. When it comes to gift giving, research by his students has shown that if someone is expecting a "thing" and receives an experience instead, they generally aren't all that disappointed. But reverse that scenario, and those expecting life experiences do end up let down if they receive a material item.

"Your disappointment would come from the fact that it would appear the person didn't know you really well," Howell said. "What someone gives seems to matter very little versus whether the person who was receiving the gift felt like it was a true expression of who they really are. That the receiver feels they can say, 'That person gets me.'"

The stress of the holiday season -- hosting family, preparing big meals -- can also impact a person's happiness, Howell said. It can feel a bit like the movie "Christmas Vacation," in which the main character Clark Griswold's efforts to have a "good old-fashioned family Christmas" slowly descend into chaos and disappointment.

"You watch Chevy Chase trying to live up to this idealized perfect Christmas he can't have, and I think there are a lot of people who buy into that," he said. That's because, research has shown, people forecast how happy they will be during the holiday's high point -- the entire family finally sitting down for the big meal, for example -- and assume that is how they will feel during the entire season. But what they don't think about is how stressful it might be to cook the meal and wind up disappointed when expectations don't line up with reality.

To get a more realistic perspective, Howell said, people should think about the entire range of activities they will do during the holidays and estimate how happy they will be during each of them.

"The biggest thing is not to fall into the trap of focusing on specific high-emotional events and expecting that will be the most important thing and the only thing that's going to matter to your well being."

For more on Howell's Beyond the Purchase project, visit

-- Jonathan Morales