I love birthdays and the holidays, but I don’t love the post-holiday clutter and extra stuff. So a few years ago, our family started leaning into experiences instead of gifts—and it has been a game-changer. Not only does clutter make me feel prickly and overwhelmed, but all that extra “stuff” (much of which ends up in the landfill) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Eventually I decided to say enough. Enough with the post-holiday gift-giving hangover. Enough with the mental gymnastics to figure out my holiday shopping list. Enough with the piles of toys and clothes and games. We would do experiences instead of gifts.
Instead of exchanging things none of us really need or want, we go on extended family vacations together. Instead of buying my kids gadgets, we go to sporting events together. Instead of wracking my brain to find the latest toy for my nieces and nephews, we give them tickets to a trampoline park or a membership to the zoo.
For the first few years, I worried that it would be a wet blanket on the holiday spirit. But giving experiences instead of gifts has only increased the holiday spirit—here’s why.
1. Experiences foster more gratitude
Researchers at Cornell University found that even though people might feel happy about material goods, they feel more grateful for experiences. “We feel more gratitude for what we’ve done than for what we have—and that kind of gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others,” researchers wrote.
What’s more, studies have found that giving your kid too many toys actually causes them to be less happy. Researchers have found that too many toys and games can cause kids to play less because they are distracted and overwhelmed. Sensory overload can thwart the concentration needed to play with the toys and games.
2. Vacations really are the gift that keeps on giving
Research shows that family vacations can be “happiness anchors” for our kids, bringing them enjoyment for years—or even decades—to come. And these vacations can be happiness anchors for us parents too. On days when I’m feeling sluggish and blah, scrolling through vacation photos can give me the boost I need.
It’s important to note that trips and family vacations don’t have to be extravagant or involve faraway travels. A family vacation could be camping near home. A trip could be an afternoon road trip to a town near you that you haven’t been to before. It could be an outing to the local museum or regular trips to the zoo with an annual membership.
3. Experiences instead of gifts are better for the environment
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, household waste usually increases by about 25% and equates to about 1,000 extra pounds of trash. The increase in trash comes from the packaging used to ship items, gift wrapping (which is often not recyclable), and unwanted gifts that are tossed in the garbage (instead of donated).
Returning unwanted gifts is its own environmental nightmare too. “Shipping returned inventory across the United States generates an estimated 15 million tons of carbon emissions every year, the equivalent of three million cars’ annual emissions,” Fast Company reports. “After these returned products arrive at warehouses, retailers will dump five million tons of it in the trash, since this is often cheaper than trying to resell it.”
4. Experiences are better for kids’ brains (and our own)
An Oxford University study found that the academic success of young children ages three to five was more dependent on their home environment and parental involvement than toys or electronic devices. Children with fewer toys and no electronics who had parents who spent more time with them did better in school and had stronger social-emotional skills. In other words, it isn’t what our kids have that matters, but who they interact and spend time with. Family vacations are a great way to spend time with children without the distractions of our day-to-day lives.
Studies have shown that international travel increases cognitive flexibility, enabling our brain to move more efficiently between different ideas. Child development experts and psychologists say that cross-cultural experiences can boost a sense of connection and empathy. You don’t need to travel the globe to get these benefits, however. Exposure to different cultures and people happens when we step outside of our bubble and immerse ourselves in a new culture or get to know people who have a different cultural background that ours.
5. Giving experiences doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition
If you love having a few gifts under the tree or want your child to have something to unwrap on their birthday, rest assured, this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach. While the bulk of our gifts might be family vacations and in-town experiences, there are still some fun trinkets and gifts that I am confident my kids need or will enjoy. And since we don’t have a money tree in our backyard and need to stick to a budget, some years are lighter on the experiences while others are lighter on the “stuff.”
If you’re considering giving experiences instead of gifts this holiday season, let me tell you, it is a holiday game-changer—and a life-changer too. Without the last-minute holiday shopping panic, you can enjoy holiday baking shows while eating cookies and looking forward the adventure you have planned. And the experiences you enjoy with your family will provide benefits for years to come.