Experiences over stuff. The meaningful way to make your kids happy.

My 22-month-old son, Charlie, has more than 50 tiny little cars that seem to be in every corner of my house. They are on the floor at night, behind the sofa, in his car bed or in his car box.

The cars give him a lot of happiness, but it’s fleeting. A new silver Porche may only give five minutes worth of wow factor and then he’s onto the next thing.  The Porche is then lumped on his play car-park with the rest of them.  Then, tomorrow, he will want a “new car”.

I love making my son happy, but I want it to be more meaningful.

Psychologists suggest that “experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having)”.

Thomas Gilovich has spent over a decade studying why spending money on doing things rather than buying stuff is more rewarding.  One of his theories is that it starts before the purchase.

“Waiting for experiences tends to be more positive than waiting for possessions,” his study suggests.  Waiting for an experience was “more pleasurable and exciting” than waiting to receive a material thing, according to Gilovich, Amit Kumar and Matthew A. Killingsworth.

I wanted to try out the theory.  I decided it was a no “new car” day and booked my son into a music class via a website that offers a variety of experiences for children.

My Best Gift founder and CEO, Sara Eastwood, set up the business just over a year ago, when she reached her limit of receiving toys for two young daughters, Mila and Sophie. In an effort to create an alternative for parents, her website offers gifting experiences for babies to teenagers.


Sara and her daughter Mila try aerial silks. Image supplied.

"I would much rather my kids see more, and do more, and try more things than have another Elsa doll," says Mrs Eastwood.

The Sydney mother's business idea was born because she wanted her girls to have rich experiences, rather than more things.

"I really believe that experiences make you happier. They create memories and become part of who you are.  Things quickly lose their shine and those new shiny toys all of sudden become another toy at the bottom of the toy box," she said.

That adaptation to the new is "one of the enemies of happiness", according to Gilovich.

Sara and her daughter Sophie at swimming class. Post continues after video.

"We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them," Gilovich told Dr Travis Bradbury.

The leading psychologist believes that experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods.

"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," he said.


My attempt to create memories and some musical identity for Charlie fell on a rainy Sydney Wednesday, where my usual trip to the local park wasn't going to cut it. We had been talking about music class since the night before so Charlie wouldn't fall asleep on the way.

By 9.30am I was dressed and out of the house, Charlie was shaking maracas at the BlueBell Music class and mingling with a bunch of other little people.

Charlie in class. Image supplied.

As it pelted down outside, Charlie banged on a bongo drum and by the end of the class he was so confident he was singing his musical hits solo - which were really just short yelps of delight.  There wasn't a need or a mention of a "new car" all morning.

"When we think about our own childhood, there’s always memories about things we did with people. Experiences that we had. You might have one favourite toy you might remember but I know from my own experience, I remember the things that I did, or the holidays that I had," says Mrs Eastwood.

I would like to think Charlie will remember that I got up that early that day and trudged through sideways rain to get him to that music class, but he won't.  However, while I was trying to make him happier and give him a rich cultural experience, I got to add Charlie improvising on a bongo drum to my memory bank.  Every time I think of that it makes me happy. I'm with the psychologists, I think we both got a lot more out of it than the fleeting newness of a brand new tiny Porche.