The Texas State Railroad in Palestine hosts Polar Express-themed train trips in December, one of many options for experiential gifts this holiday season. Photo: Kenny Braun

On my son’s third birthday last year, he received a gift we’ll probably never top: snow in Austin. The 4-inch snowfall provided enough white powder for all the winter fun he’d only seen in cartoons or picture books until then. For two magical hours, he ran around our yard making snowballs and snow angels and catching snowflakes on his tongue. Nearly a year later, he still brings it up on a regular basis—the night so cemented in his mind, I’m betting it’ll be one of his first recallable memories. The toys and clothes he got for gifts that year, not so much.

There’s a reason experiences like this loom so large in our minds. According to Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas and author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, things lose their luster fairly quickly, while memories of experiences only brighten with time. Part of the reason for that, he says, is other people are much more interested in hearing about our experiences than, say, the expensive car we just bought. And for vacations or events we plan in advance, the anticipation can be just as sweet as the trip itself. “Before you go, you think of all the fun things you’re going to do,” he explains. “And afterward you only remember the good. It’s called the rosy view effect—before or after an experience, you enjoy the experience more.”

So as we head into the busiest buying season of the year, consider planning a trip with loved ones or giving them an experience they can enjoy in the future. We’ve got some ideas to get you started in our “Experiential Gift Guide“. Because experiences leave room for the unexpected—like building a snowman in Texas on your birthday.

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