12/24/2013 12:18 EST | Updated 02/23/2014 05:59 EST

The Best Gifts Don't Always Come in A Box

There was Craig, standing on a little platform 20 feet off the ground, rigged up in a safety harness. He grabbed the wooden trapeze bar and swung out into space. Letting go, he executed a perfect somersault into the waiting net below. Okay; really, it was a just barely acceptable somersault. Nevertheless, in one instant he was transported back 20 years to the kid who dreamed of being an Olympic gymnast. That was his 30th birthday present from friends this year: a one-day class at a circus school.

Best. Gift. Ever.

Canadians are frantically scrambling to knock those last few items off of their Christmas shopping lists. Traffic is impossible, free parking spaces are non-existent, and stores are jammed to the rafters; last-minute stress abounds. Come Boxing Day, many will survey the carnage -- the mounds of packaging and torn wrapping paper -- and lament the waste and excess of holiday consumerism. It's a good time to stop and think that, just maybe, the best gifts don't come in a box.

A few weeks ago, RBC released its economic outlook for this holiday season in Canada. Based on a survey of 3,200 people, RBC says that, after several years of cutting back, Canadians are planning to spend a little more this holiday season. What's interesting, however, is that the amount Canadians intend to spend on gifts is still decreasing. So what's making up the difference? People are planning to spend more on the experience of the holidays -- decorations, travel, and entertainment.

Earlier this year, we wrote about a new book on the stands called Happy Money: the Science of Smarter Spending (Simon and Schuster). Written by Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, Happy Money chronicles their research into how people can change their spending habits to maximize their happiness. They found that spending money on others makes you happier than spending on yourself. They also found that spending money on experiences created more happiness than buying material items -- according to the book, a day at a spa is worth more in happiness than a new flatscreen TV.

So if spending on others is good, and spending on experiences is good, then giving experiences as a gift must be the best of both worlds. The possibilities for giving experiential gifts are almost endless, and suitable for any budget: a dinner out, tickets to a sporting or theatrical event, or a trip somewhere near or far. Experiential gifts can also give you an opportunity to spend time with a loved one, like enrolling both of you in a workshop for a hobby you share.

But don't take our word for it. There is more evidence to support the experiential gift theory. Joseph Goodman, assistant professor of marketing at Washington University, published a research paper entitled: Giving Happiness: Do Experiential Gifts Lead to More Happiness? After last year's winter holidays, Goodman recruited 136 students and asked them to think of one gift under $50 in value that they had either given or received during the holidays. Half were asked to think of a material gift and half an experiential gift. They were then asked to rate, on a scale of one to seven, how happy the gift made them or, if it was a gift they gave to someone else, how happy they thought the gift made the recipient. Students who had received the gift of an experience gave their gift a higher happiness rating (with an average score of 5.61) than those who had received a material gift (average score 4.74).

However, those who had given an experiential gift did not, on average, think their gift had created any more happiness for their recipient than those who gave a material gift. This led Goodman to study reasons people might prefer to give a thing rather than an experience: they believe material gifts are more memorable, that they are more appreciated, that there is more risk of giving a gift the recipient doesn't like, or that an experiential gift puts more burden or requires more effort from the recipient. Through additional surveys, Goodman found that material presents still have no measurable advantage over experiential gifts.

So as you're hunting for the ideal gift for those last few people on your list, why not save yourself the shopping stress, the consumerism, and the packaging waste, and buy your loved one an experience instead. Ten years from now, what are they going to remember most--the remote-controlled car that broke within a week, the latest electronic gadget that was obsolete six months later, or the day they got to swing on the trapeze and dream of joining the circus?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit