Black Friday offer Scapa Fest 2018

The Psychology behind Gifting an Experience: Relationships, ROI and Getting it Right

Are you like me?  Do you have expectations that you’ll present your loved ones with the best gift ever?  Do you want this to be a wonderful surprise, so you don’t accept any hints or blatant requests?  Do you achieve this?  Or are you, like me, paralysed by the voices in your head that analyse every idea?  …and then miss all the deadlines for the personalised gifts on Not On The High Street and end up throwing money at John Lewis a week before Christmas?

Well, check out the psychological and practical benefits of gifting an experience we’ve found below; it turns out, there is A LOT of evidence behind gifting and experience.  It doesn’t have to be an extortionate experience box you see in department stores, and everything below applies to treating yourself too (yes you, looking after you).  Because, we all just want to be happy and feel a bit special, right?

Gifting an experience can strengthen relationships

A study in 2016 from The University of Toronto and UCLA found that, from the recipient’s perspective, gifting an experience was more effective at strengthening a relationship that material gifts.  They report that it’s all down to the difference in emotional response between gaining a material possession and living through an experience.  That’s because experiences are part of who we are; the memories, emotions felt, people we meet and perspectives gained have the potential to shape our outlook on life.  Material gifts, no matter how valued, will always be separate from us.  Experiences are part of us and the giver is associated with this.

“You can really like your material stuff, but nonetheless they remain separate from you… Your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum of our total experiences” – Prof Thomas Gilovich

To take this a step further, for partners, children and close friends, the impact of consuming the experience together is significant.  It’s more than being able to reminisce with another person (although, that in itself is bonding); it’s that you both have that experience as part of your identity and nothing can ever take that away.

Which brings us on to….

Gifting an experience really is the gift that keeps giving

Psychology Professor, Dr Thomas Gilovich, from Cornell University talks about how our intrinsic programming stops us from getting joy from material gifts in the long term.  This may seem counterintuitive, right?  Surely, if you give a material item, that item is physically available for years to come whereas an experience will be over in a given amount of time.

The problem is, we adapt to physical items to such an extent that they become our new “normal”.  And normal equals boring (although I’d argue he’s not looked into KitchenAids).  Prof Gilovich describes adaptation as “the enemy of happiness”.  In a study comparing the emotions of recipients of physical gifts compared to those of experiences, they found that the initial excitement and joy felt by both groups of subjects was pretty much the same at the moment of receipt.  However, over time, this feeling deteriorated for the group who had received a physical gift.   For those who had been gifted an experience, their feeling was maintained over the long term and, in some cases, even increased.  That’s because after the initial excitement, the recipient of an experience goes on to a least 3 further phases of emotion:

Anticipation:  The feeling of anticipation can be a powerful emotion that can even contribute to our happiness.  A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2007 found that subjects gained more joy from anticipating future events than looking back on past events.

In the moment: An experience will generate a moment or period of time in which a series of emotions will be felt. As it’s a one-off event, there is a natural reason for focussing on that moment; a forced sense of mindfulness. In addition, the recipient may learn something new, meet new people or gain a new perspective on life.

Reflection: nostalgia has psychological benefits; making us feel more hopeful about the future and emotionally closer to those around us.  According to Dr Routledge at North Dakota State University, bringing cherished experiences to mind “assures us we are valued people who have meaningful lives”

But how do you know what experience to gift??

Gifting an experience is less sensitive to getting it right

This is because the experience itself is the thing.  New and different experiences for the individual count; in fact, they might even have more of an impact.  New experiences make us learn more about our likes and dislikes, stimulate creativity and can lead to new unexpected paths in our lives.

And get this, even if the worst case scenario happens and the experience isn’t quite what the recipient expected, the benefits will still be felt; the experience will still become a part of the recipient’s life and the power of reminiscing remains.  Now, this makes me think of the sky dive I was gifted for my birthday by my Paratrooper boyfriend at the time.  I had always wanted to do a sky dive and was so touched that he organised this for me.  Imagine my disappointment when, at the open door to the plane 10,000ft above the ground, I realised I was not as brave as I thought I was.  In fact, I was terrified.  All the way down: terrified.  At the bottom everyone was asking me if I was hooked and saying “just you wait, you’ll be addicted now!”.  No.  No, I’m not.  But the experience delivered everything the science promises; incredibly clear memories of excitedly checking the weather every weekend and driving to the sky diving centre; the fun of telling the story; having an insight into something that was part of his life; having this as part of us and our relationship forever. (And the Paratrooper boyfriend?  He became my husband the following year).

And there’s more…

According to Prof Gilovich, we are less prone to negatively or competitively compare experiences.  Because the anticipation, consumption and reflection of the experience is all in the heart of the beholder.  Material items, on the other hand, are up for comparison whether consciously or not.  The majority of the features are physical and defined and each feature is likely to have an alternative to which it can be evaluated; is it the better colour, size, weight, functionality?  Prof Gilovish says it’s these material features that make us vulnerable to the “Keeping up with The Joneses” syndrome.

Maximising Return on Investment

According to Nationwide, we spend upto £200 on our partner at Christmas and £145 on each of our kids.  That’s a lot of money and some of the gift boxes you see in department stores are about that much.  But with a bit of creativity and a bit of help from Google Images, I’m thinking create a pretty voucher of the amount or write them a letter so you have something to present.  Maybe even contact the supplier to see if you can buy a personalised discount code.

But what should you gift?

The science would suggest your recipient would get most benefits from your investment if the experience:

  • It’s shared with someone or offers a chance to meet new people
  • Is well planned; minimise stress and decision-making so they can focus on the experience
  • Involves the outdoors; being outside with nature boosts mental energy and, specifically, forests can reduce stress levels
  • Generates feelings of awe; this gives a mental boost (which is why our laptops give us those fab pictures to welcome us)
  • Provides a new experience for the recipient; variation in life is the key to happiness according to Prof Raj Persaud
  • Educates or gives a new perspective; this is how you really start contributing to someone’s identify
  • Encourages a mindful experience; long enough in duration and away from it all to minimise distractions

You, you, lovely you

I could give you a hundred quotes about why we need to make time for ourselves and treat ourselves with love.  But you probably see them all the time on social media.  These serve well for inspiration but what most of us need is something that justifies or rationalises something we really want.  Like a bunch of science or data or recommendations from others.  Well, the above applies to you too because we all just want to be happy and feel a bit special, right?

At Scapa Fest HQ, we believe in gifting mindfully for others and investing in ourselves so strongly that we want to make it a bit easier for you or your loved ones to have an amazing experience gift for 2018.  We have our very own version of Black Friday coming up.. Find out more about our Mindful Friday offer…



Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases, Kumar et al. 2014, Sage Journal of Psychological Science

The Science of why you should spend your money on Experience, Not Things by Jay Cassano 2015, Fast Company

The Power of Anticipation: Why we all need something to look forward to, Steven Handel 2017 The Emotion Machine

Experiences are better than material items, University of Toronto, Science Daily 2016

Nostalgia is Good for You: When we reminisce, Life Feels More Meaningful and Death Less Frightening, Medical Daily 2013

Staying Sane, Dr Raj Persaud

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