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Summer is over, and people have come back to a regular work schedule from their time off. Suddenly – it’s Christmas! “Bugger, what gift should I get now?!” - do you know that feeling?

While we can’t tell you the exact answer to that question, we can tell you which type of gift could be good: Experiences. This might sound like a sales pitch (and to be honest it is), but hang in there: There’s actual science to back this up.

When it comes to gifts, we often think that we should get something tangible, material.Turns out, psychology suggests otherwise.

Prof. Thomas Gilovich, psychologist at the University of Cornell, says that experiences make us much happier than material possessions: “People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession. They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they’ll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.”

Read on to find out why.

Experiences are social

Experiences carry a lot of social value, whilst having few social drawbacks.

For an example of an avoided drawback, think of comparison. Comparing ourselves or our possessions to those of others creates huge social pressure. Things are easy to compare: iPhone 7 vs 7 plus; off-the-shelf vs artisan; silver vs gold. Comparing experiences is much harder, because they are so subjective. As Travis Bradberry puts it: “It’s hard to quantify the relative value of any two experiences, which makes them that much more enjoyable.”

Experiences not only avoid drawbacks, though, they are inherently social. Most experiences we share with people, on so many levels – and that’s also why they last longer.

Experiences last longer

We share it with our co-workers after the experience. As Amit Kumar, a graduate student who worked with Gilovich, put it in an interview: “Turns out people don’t like hearing about other people’s possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend.” (Wait, who is Vampire Weekend…?)

We share it with people during the experience. Very rarely, we experience things alone (except for, maybe, when hiking the West Highland Way solo, but the thought alone makes me feel hermitic). When we go out for an experience, we take our nearest and dearest: friends to a concert, our family to dinner, or our partner on a trip. We share those moments, and by doing so grow closer and happier. To put it this way: On our deathbed, what will we regret more – not having bought that new table, or not having spent more time with our people?

Even more, the anticipation before an experience is much more pleasing than the anticipation of a material possession. Think about it: How would you talk about waiting for the delivery of your new phone? “Why on earth can’t they deliver sooner?!” And about your upcoming trip next month? “Oh, yes, you know what we’re going to do?! We’re going to…” and on goes the conversation. Waiting for things invokes impatience, while waiting for experiences is rather exciting and enjoyable.

Experiences shape us

Experiences have a much larger impact on our personality. If we as individuals are the sum of anything, we are not the sum of things we own, but the sum of our experiences (although I’d like to argue that we are even a little more than that). Did that new sofa change who you are? Probably not. How about that play you have seen, the concert you went to or that inspiring talk you have heard? Much more likely.

A personal (and true!) anecdote: My favourite of our tours is the London Underground and Tube Tour. Before I became a tour guide, my partner had given it to me for my birthday, quote “to do something different”. I wasn’t much into trains or public transport systems, but after we went on it, I realised I would never look at either the same way as before. To say it with the words of one of our guests, it became “more than a hot, stuffy way to go around London”. In fact, it was what got me into tour guiding in the first place - talk about a life-changer. But even if that hadn’t happened, at least since then I would have told I’m telling all our friends about the odd little twists of the tube.

Bringing it all together

Things can be great gifts – but their only value lies in the experiences they enable us to have. Phones enable us to call our loved ones. Tables and board games enable us to share our time. Books enable us to experience another world or gain new knowledge. But if your loved one already has a (working) phone, will that new one make them happier? Maybe for the day, a week or even a month. But soon, they won’t see the difference to their old phone, and the happiness fades away. An experience to anticipate, share and talk about though, will have a much larger, much longer impact.

So, if you’re looking for a gift for Christmas, and can’t think of a thing that that person needs: Get them an experience, and do something memorable together.

Maybe explore London on a walk?

If you want to book with us this Christmas, don’t forget to claim a 20% discount by using the discount code ‘christmas20’ during booking. To keep up to date to discount codes and what we do, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.