Studies have found that spending money on experiences, rather than possessions, increases happiness.
Try your hand on the flying trapeze. Spend the day at an African chant and drumming class. Go walking with alpacas in the Lake District. Learn how to care for your own colony of bees. No, not the dreams of a frazzled TV exec planning the next celebrity reality show, but just a few of the experiential gifts you may end up giving or receiving this Christmas.
“The move towards spending money on experiences, as opposed to material possessions, has been happening for a few years now,” says trend forecaster Lucie Greene, director of the Innovation Group. “It’s intertwined with the rise of social media. Taking part in a transformative or cool experience that you can brag about on Instagram is now worth more in social currency than a new handbag or the latest gadget. Also, technology means that we now have less need for items that we used to buy for people. Cameras, DVDs and CDs were classic gifts – now we just have our smartphones, a Spotify account and a Netflix subscription.”
As with many trends that have become mainstream, millennials were early adopters of the experiential economy. “This generation came of age at a time when spending lots of money on things had a negative connotation thanks to the 2008 financial crisis,” says David Burstein, author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. “While a few decades ago yuppies splashed their cash on cars, watches and property, now muppies (that’s millennial yuppies, FYI) are more likely to spend their disposable income on small luxurious experiences, which will leave them with a positive memory, such as an expensive exercise class, a massage or a weekend away.”
But it’s not just millennials who are eschewing piles of gifts under the tree for a chance to learn a skill or experience something new. Whether we have “reached peak stuff” – a belief expressed by Steve Howard, Ikea’s chief sustainability officer – we’re officially consuming less, and doing more. Last year, figures from Barclaycard showed an increase in spending on theatre, cinema and restaurants, while department stores, vehicle sales and household appliances were all down. Equally, online marketplace notonthehighstreet reported a 96% increase in experience sales between March 2016 and 2017 – outperforming every other category.
Major brands are already responding to this shift away from conspicuous consumption towards Yolo-type adventures (holidays that incorporate uncommon destinations or activities such as parasailing or eco tours). “Luxury fashion companies are now diversifying into lifestyle and hospitality experiences,” says Greene. “Ralph Lauren has launched restaurants and members’ clubs, Prada has opened museums, LVMH has been acquiring resorts, and Nordstrom has recently announced a store in Los Angeles that will not sell anything – it will revolve around services and experiences.” Last year, Airbnb launched its new “Trips” service, which offers travellers offbeat excursions and experiences around the world, ranging from writing for television to samurai sword training in Japan with the choreographer of Kill Bill.
“If you think about the 20th century, the big dominant value system was materialism, the belief that if we had more stuff we’d be happier,” says James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less. “But [our new system] – what I call ‘experientialism’ – is more about finding happiness and status in experiences instead.”
Indeed, numerous studies have suggested that spending money on experiences, rather than possessions, increases happiness. Even the mere anticipation of an event can increase positive feelings months before it happens, which is why booking and planning a holiday can feel so exciting. “Research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than trips or concerts,” says Michael Norton, co-author of Happy Money: the Science of Smarter Spending. “This could be because we adapt to new possessions, so the excitement fades, but it’s also because live experiences become part of us and bond us to others.”
But the biggest mood-booster of all comes from buying a gift for someone else. “Research has found that purchasing anything for someone else makes you feel happier than buying the same item for yourself,” says Norton. So presumably buying an experience gift for someone else is a double whammy? Get ready to feel as warm and fuzzy as those alpacas they’ll be hiking with.
From alpaca walking to gin distilling, beekeeping, blacksmithing and coffee-tasting, notonthehighstreet offers a huge array of one-of-a-kind experiences to give (or treat yourself to)
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