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Gifts that keep on giving: Why experiences make great presents

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Give experiences instead of things this Christmas and you’ll delight family and friends, while cutting back on time and money spent in the malls. Ray Robertson reports.

I have to tell you from the get-go that my super power is choosing the perfect gift. I take pride in my ability to pick ‘the best present ever,’ each and every time. But my brother-in-law always has me beat. I’ve spent the past four years not knowing what to buy him for Christmas, or for his birthday for that matter. He’s a very contented and self-contained man, and he’s married to my sister, so I can never think what I could possibly give him to make his life more complete.

Stripped of my gift-giving super power, I’ve ended up buying my brother-in-law some pretty strange things over the years; they’re not panic buys because I put a lot of thought into them but they are unerringly inappropriate and, as often as not, downright silly. The first Christmas I gave him The Dangerous Book for Boys, with a note saying that this way he’d know how to save my sister and their children in the apocalypse. A gloomy choice on reflection; an odd one too, because Bear Grylls is a mate. Then there was the glow-in- the-dark fishing tackle which turned out to be for kids, and the totally random (though vinyl) Fine Young Cannibals album.

This year, I’d decided on Thai fisherman’s pants (silk ones), that is until a friend kindly suggested I give up with the gifts and gift my bro an experience instead.

Experience gifting

Giving experiences instead of gifts turns out to be a bit of a thing; it’s really catching on. The idea is that by giving someone an experience, anything from a sky dive to cookery lessons, you are giving them something memorable and/ or useful that they can enjoy for years to come. Research says that the giver is happy because they’re giving something meaningful, and the recipient is happy because he gets something of real and lasting value.

Thomas Gilovich and Matthew Killingsworth, researchers at Cornell University, published a paper in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2014 revealing that experiences provide more lasting happiness than material possessions. They found that people tend to get less happy with material purchases over time, and happier with remembered experiences. We quickly take physical things, even the cutest Maje dress or coolest iPhone, for granted, while memories get richer and more meaningful as the years go by.

“You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences,” Gilovich says.

If experiences maketh the man, the good thing is that there are any number of experiences to be had, and to give. It’s true, you have to really know people well if you are to gift them an experience they will enjoy, but that’s the only caveat.

For DB couples looking to treat each other this Christmas, a helicopter ride to Macau springs immediately to mind, as does a meal in a favourite restaurant, or a weekend away. And here’s a top tip for male readers: a night at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong never fails to win (or re-win) fair maiden.

Kids and adults, alike, will gain lasting benefit and enjoyment from being gifted a course in something that interests them, be that ballet, ballroom dancing, basketball, drama, yoga, cookery, paragliding, photography, or permaculture.

Enriching experiences for the whole family are also easy enough to dream up. How about a nature tour of Lantau, or a Dolphinwatch boat trip? You could gift everyone a Friends of Hong Kong Ballet membership or pre-book tickets to a few big-name shows at AsiaWorld- Expo. The promise of twice-monthly trips to the Wednesday-night meets at Happy Valley Racecourse would be another good bet.

With experiences like this, you’re creating an opportunity for your family to get out there and create memories together, so what you’re really gifting is your time – you don’t have to splash the cash.

Less of a greed fest

Giving an experience also makes sense on a totally practical level. What’s central here is that you’re not just giving people random stuff that they don’t need, that in all likelihood they don’t want, and that, given the size of most DB apartments, they’ll be hard pushed to find room for. Most of us are already drowning in material possessions – toys, clothes, gadgets – why fan the materialistic flames, why add to your loved ones’ load?

There’s something about experience-giving that makes Christmas less of a greed fest. It frees you up from fighting your way through overcrowded neon lit malls with your almost maxed-out credit card at the ready, in search of something ‘special’ for your best girlfriend. And if you have a couple of rewarding experiences already lined up for your kids, you’ll be less inclined to feel you have to purchase every last item on their ever-expanding Christmas wish lists.

Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without presents to wrap and unwrap, and the good news is that even though an experience isn’t tangible, you can still give it in present form. Let’s say you’ve signed your husband up for a scuba-diving course… rather than just handing him an envelope with the voucher inside, pack the envelope in a really big beribboned box. His delight, when he unwraps not the half expected gaming console or crate of wine but his ticket to a lifetime of underwater adventure, will prove you’re on to something.

Sometimes a material gift leads to an experience, so if you want to widen the net there are plenty of options. Gifts that keep on giving include board games, musical instruments, indoor gardening or homebrewing kits, camping equipment, a telescope, a flower press.

It suddenly strikes me that all those suggestions hark back to another era, and maybe that’s part of the charm of experience gifting. Did I mention The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden (and The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskoqitz)? I still think these books make great gifts. Both are designed to interest kids (and adults) in age-old pursuits like reading a compass, growing a crystal, navigating by the stars, or building a treehouse. It’s fair to say they are packed full of experiences that will tear loved ones away from their screens, encouraging them to get out there and do.

If you aren’t fully convinced by this Christmas narrative or you have already purchased gifts for this year, consider adding some experiences to the pile under  the tree, and watching people’s reactions as they unwrap them. The joy on their faces may encourage you to transition to more experience-based gifting next year. After all, if you were given the choice between Thai fisherman’s pants (silk ones), or a family dinner at your favourite Thai restaurant, which would you choose?


Photos courtesy of www.unsplash.com

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Comment(s) on - Gifts that keep on giving: Why experiences make great presents

  • Michelle Lam Reply

    I absolutely agree! =)

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