“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands.  Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.” – John Updike

Do you remember all (or any) of the presents that you unwrapped at Christmas five years ago? How about ten years ago? Many of us spend a great deal of time thinking about acquiring material possessions, imagining the joy or excitement that their use or presence will bring to our lives. The unfortunate part of this quest for happiness through material gain is that it rarely results in sustained joy. We often forget about material objects after we have had them for awhile, allowing them to accumulate dust on shelves or get pushed to the back of drawers.

If material goods rarely bring about genuine or long-term happiness, why do many of us continue to believe that the next big thing is finally going to make us happy? Take the time to reflect on your own history of purchasing gifts for others and receiving gifts yourself. What gifts really stand out in your mind to this day as being meaningful, special, or memorable in some way? What do the most meaningful gifts that you have given or received all had in common?

According to a study by Carter and Gilovich (2010), 57% of Americans report that meaningful experiences make them happier than “stuff.” It’s hard to wrap up an experience, put a bow on it, and place it underneath the Christmas tree. But you can give people in your life the gift of meaningful experiences in other ways.

Ways of giving others the gift of meaningful experiences:

  • Give someone in your life the gift of your precious time. Spend the day doing a memorable and special activity together.
  • Consider what special events or outings people in your life have always wanted to do, but haven’t found the time.
  • Reflect on a meaningful place to visit with someone in your life that you would both enjoy and find memorable.
  • Think of a fun outdoor activity that you and someone in your life would enjoy together.
  • Give people in your community the gift of volunteering your time for a worthy cause.

Why meaningful experiences make you happier than “stuff:”

  • You mentally revisit and reflect on experiences more than material possessions. They continue to provide happiness long after the event itself.
  • Meaningful experiences get better with time because they continue to evolve and take on new meanings, whereas “stuff” just gets old.
  • Experiences are resistant to unfavorable comparisons because they are unique, whereas “stuff” is easy to compare unfavorably to other “stuff” due to similarities.
  • Because meaningful experiences tend to be unique in nature, we adapt more slowly to them, prolonging happiness.
  • Experiences tend to involve social connections with other people, which generally increases happiness, whereas “stuff” tends to be experienced in isolation.

Experiences consistently outweigh possessions in terms of creating longstanding positive feelings and memories. If you believe that you tend to gravitate toward a pattern of overdoing it with buying “stuff” as gifts for people, ask yourself what it is that you really want to give people in your life. Sometimes we have a deep longing to express our love to other people, yet have difficulty with knowing how to do that. For some people, there is a tendency to try to express that love through buying more “stuff.” Try to reflect on your own patterns and ask yourself what it would be like to express your love in a genuine, authentic, and direct way. What meaningful experiences are you willing and able to give to people in your life?

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Featured image: My Love Comes Bearing Gifts by Vincent van der Pas / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Ada on December 27, 2011 at 8:03 am

    I usually come to this site, read and move on. Today I had to stop and say Thank You. I’m home recuperating from a surgery, I can’t go anywhere for now and there is nobody with me, except my husband. This is the first time in my whole life I don’t get a Xmas gift, It hit me very hard and the numbers in my DBT diary are off the chart. It wasnt until I read this that I came to realize that I got the best gift ever this year, my husband is with me, taking care of me, making sure the pain is not too bad, helping me move, watching silly tv shows with me. How selfish of me… I’m just happy wisemind usually takes me to this site when I’m all deregulated. Thank you!

    Be well,
    Ada Nicky

    • Laura on December 27, 2011 at 9:12 am

      Ada – Thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like the recognition that your husband is there to care for you and watching silly tv shows with you prompted a heartfelt experience of gratitude, shifting your emotional experience. What a wonderful gift that is to have someone who loves you right there by your side. I am so grateful to hear that reading on my site has been a helpful and positive experience for you. It is amazing how wise mind works, knowing what will be helpful to us, when we are quiet and listen. I wish you a full recovery from your surgery. Thank you for your comment and for visiting, Ada.

      Best wishes, Laura

  2. Giving your time a great gift | Volunteer News on January 2, 2013 at 4:29 am

    […] Meaningful Experiences Make You Happier Than “Stuff” | Mindfulness Muse“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.” – John Updike Do you remember all (or any) of the presents that you unwrapped at Christmas five years ago? […]

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