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What to Buy This Holiday Season

gift_300Since humans are adaptive by nature, that hot new product will become old hat in about …3, 2, 1. Instead of material goods, buy an experience–and learn which kinds offer the best bang for your buck.

The specific experiences that people enjoy vary with their age, gender, personality, and a zillion idiosyncratic characteristics. Liz’s ideal vacation, for example, would involve surfing a different Nicaraguan beach every day. Mike’s would entail surfing couches for his afternoon naps. But our discussion so far suggests that across a wide range of different types of experiences, you’re likely to get the biggest bang for your buck if:

• The experience brings you together with other people, fostering a sense of social connection.
• The experience makes a memorable story that you’ll enjoy retelling for years to come.
• The experience is tightly linked to your sense of who you are or want to be.
• The experience provides a unique opportunity, eluding easy comparison with other available options.

Equally interesting is what doesn’t matter. A trip into space might have a bigger impact on happiness than buying that Tudor-style house, but $200,000 is a lot to pay for just six minutes in space. Remarkably, though, the length of an experience has little impact on the pleasure people remember deriving from it. Perhaps Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords was on to something when he sang in “Business Time” that “when it’s with me you only need two minutes.” Why? “Because I’m so intense.” In a New Zealand study, vacationers rated their happiness on each day of their trip via text message. One to two weeks after they got back, they reported their overall feelings about the holiday. Although the vacations ranged in length from four to fourteen days, the duration of the trip had no bearing on their overall feelings about the trip. The text messages revealed that vacationers felt happier during their trip than they did in their daily lives. But after the trip, they remembered feeling even better than they actually had. And the worst part of the trip failed to drag down their overall evaluations of the experience. It may be worth paying for an experience that meets the four criteria above, even if it won’t last long and there’s some risk of unpleasantness along the way.


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