Parents Perspective

A New Study Confirms: Those Christmas Presents Really CAN Make You Happy

Torn between experiences vs. things? Turns out, both both make us happy—but in different ways.

Shopping bags
Money can't buy you love, but apparently it really can buy you happiness—at least, that's the finding of a new study from the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia studied the "real time, momentary happiness" people reported receiving from both material purchases (i.e., that new Apple Watch you splurged on) and experiential purchases (i.e., tickets to see a Broadway show.) Study participants recorded how they felt about both types of purchases in the weeks after they were made, as well as at the 1-month mark, and found that both made people happy—but in different ways: The store-bought stuff brings "more frequent momentary happiness over time, whereas experiential purchases provide more intense momentary happiness on individual occasions."

"The decision of whether to buy a material thing or a life experience may therefore boil down to what kind of happiness one desires," study co-author Aaron Weidman said in a press release. "Consider a holiday shopper deciding between tickets to a concert or a new couch in the living room. The concert will provide an intense thrill for one spectacular night, but then it will end, and will no longer provide momentary happiness, aside from being a happy memory. In contrast, the new couch will never provide a thrilling moment to match the concert, but will keep the owner snug and comfortable each day throughout the winter months."

These findings aren't revolutionary, of course—anyone who's ever bought (or received) something special knows that things can absolutely provide pleasure. So, too, do many parents know the frustration of buying a kid a coveted toy, only to see it discarded after a few weeks.

I've written in this space before about trying to teach my kids to value experiences in a material world and my desire to have their fondest memories be of the things we do together as a family—not the things we buy. But of course, the two are sometimes linked together. My oldest son received a coveted Star Wars LEGO set this past Christmas, and built it just in time to see the latest movie installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on the big screen with several of his cousins. Both provided a happy experience. He started learning how to play hockey on the same backyard, neighborhood pond that I grew up ice skating on (talk about a peak happy-parenting moment for me!) and declared it his new favorite sport. I'm sure he'll have fond memories of that, too—and it was made possible by the fact that Santa brought him a hockey stick.

So I'm feeling a little less guilty about all the "stuff" my kids received, but I'm looking forward to providing more thrilling moments, too.

Erika Janes is the digital director of and the mom of two boys.