HomeThe CSWD BlogHolidaysYour gift-giving guide to not giving a thing

Your gift-giving guide to not giving a thing

Photo by Dave Dugdale

For over a decade, Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has been saying—and demonstrating in studies—that experiences make people happier than stuff. In other words, people like things to do (and look forward to, and look back on) rather than things to have.

One of his studies, published by Psychological Science in 2014, found that the feeling of happiness extends well before the experience itself. In an article about the study, The Atlantic pointed out, “Waiting for an experience apparently elicits more happiness and excitement than waiting for a material good … By contrast, waiting for a possession is more likely fraught with impatience than anticipation.”

“Even a bad experience becomes a good story.”

In describing the lasting happiness of experiences, The Atlantic saysEither they’re not around long enough to become imperfect, or they are imperfect, but our memories and stories of them get sweet with time. Even a bad experience becomes a good story.” 

Experience gifts have another benefit: They’re waste-free! A music lesson doesn’t need to be shrink-wrapped with Cellophane. A cooking class isn’t shipped in a box full of foam peanuts. Of course, the things you consume during an experience can generate waste, but that’s often under your control. In general, an experience itself has no physical object to discard when it’s over.

Other studies have shown that some things can make people just as happy as experiences, too. But experiences are still at the core of those gifts too—gifts like a tennis racket, or a guitar, as opposed to material objects that deteriorate or become obsolete, like clothes or the latest tech gadget. Things tend to blend into the background after a short burst of excitement.

A few of our favorite things experiences

Are you convinced yet? To give you some inspiration, we asked CSWD staff and our Digest readers to share their favorite experience gifts.

Public domain

Overnight delight

Take a train, or a bus, or a boat—and go on an overnight adventure somewhere special.

“My brother and I took the train into NYC and Grand Central last Christmas with our kids. It was great!  Stayed at an Airbnb in the village and the older kids went to a show. We got to see Greek statues at the Met – something my daughter at the time was very excited about! It was beautiful weather, in the 60’s, so we spent an afternoon in Central Park and made our way around the city the rest of time.” – Jon Dorwart, CSWD’s Director of Information Systems.

Original music

Beth G., a Digest reader, shared this beautiful story about her favorite anniversary gift from her husband:

“After we attended a show by a local jazz group whose sound reminded us of a musician we both love who featured prominently in the soundtrack of our courtship, my husband, unbeknownst to me, contacted the guitarist of the group and asked if he would consider working on a commissioned piece that my husband could present to me on CD for our anniversary. The man enthusiastically agreed and in short order composed the instrumental piece based on my husband’s description of why he fell in love with me. He titled it with a name my husband chose.

“Being presented with the song on CD, hearing the piece of music and the story behind it was certainly amazing enough.

“But the ‘experience’ part came when we heard the song debuted in a lounge in Burlington, where this man performed it live along with a different band. The musician did not single us out while telling the story of the song’s origin, but we both had a knowing smile on our faces. And the warm, loving feeling I had while listening to this beautiful song, seeing others enjoy it as well, was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Booklet of "Love Coupons"
Photo by Come Fly With Us

Homemade coupons

Are you a great cleaner? Babysitter? Cook? Give your gift of service! At CSWD’s holiday party last year, our School Outreach Coordinator Rhonda Mace gave the gift of one hour of yard work.

If you have kids, encourage them to give you coupons instead of spending money on things.“Our kids gave us work coupons for cleaning, making dinner, etc., and I love those and still have them!” – Amy Jewell, CSWD’s Administrative Manager.

Check out this DIY tutorial to make your own scratch-off “Love Coupons.”

Fun, food, and friends

Who’s heard of Friendsgiving? What started as a friends’ version of Thanksgiving can be extended to any time of the year! Instead of buying friends gifts for the holidays, plan a night where they can all come over for some food, bonding and fun.

“One of my favorite holiday memories was a ski trip planned with a group of friends. After a day of skiing, we barbecued an entire pig and danced around a bonfire in our ugly Christmas sweaters. We did a white elephant exchange of food or homemade items, but I don’t remember any of those gifts. I just remember all of the laughter around the warm glow of the fire.” – Jonny Finity, CSWD’s Marketing & Communications Manager.


Want to get out of freezing Vermont winter? Plan a trip somewhere warm in January!

“This year my family and I are giving each other the gift of a trip together. We’ll still do a few stocking stuffers and our fun holiday traditions, but instead of running around buying gifts for everyone, we’re running away to Costa Rica for a week in January!” – Jen Baer, Sales Director at Green Mountain Compost.

Digital memories

“In the months leading up to my birthday, my boyfriend, unbeknownst to me, made digital copies of all of the videocassettes from my daughter’s life up to now, and put it together into a fast-forward video of her whole life. There was some footage I had never even seen! It was absolutely magical.” – Amy K., Digest reader.

Your feelings

Even just a simple, heartfelt note expressing your appreciation and love can go a long way. One Mother’s Day in high school, I wrote my mom a note of gratitude instead of buying her a physical present. She always says that has been her favorite gift I’ve given to date.

Want more experience gift ideas? Take a look at Unstuff Gifts, with “no-thing” gift ideas for folks of every sort, from “geeks” to “daredevils.”

Still want to give your loved ones something to unwrap? Check out these 7 gift ideas that can actually help them reduce waste while they’re using them!

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Marketing Specialist at CSWD