Give people experiences not things

A perspective on how to enrich your relationships and not create more junk when giving gifts

Andy Sontag
4 min readDec 6, 2017


We need to be architects of our relationships. Though we all have the opportunity to design our social experiences, and build more meaningful relationships, we rarely take advantage of this opportunity. There is a huge potential for people to apply basic experience design methods to their own relationships — and create a more meaningful life. This article will explore Relational Experience Design, defined as designing experiences with the goal of building relationships.

“The relations of friendship, of husband and wife, of parent and child, of citizen and nation… exist as actions and reactions.” — John Dewey

This quote from John Dewey clearly states a truth that is not often talked about: relationships are built upon actions. Giving people a well thought through gift is a powerful action, but as Christmas approaches, we often get stuck in old habits and believe it is the only way of giving a present. It is, in reality, not the only way of giving and expressing love, and also happens to be the least impactful. The Easterlin paradox is a well researched phenomenon that shows among other things that peoples happiness with material objects decreases over time, where as their happiness with experiences purchased increases over time. Giving experiences also means we wont need to use enough wrapping paper to go round the equator nine times every Christmas season*.

Research makes it very clear — giving people you love experiences will make them more happy than giving them physical objects.

When reflecting on going back to the US from my current home in Denmark for the Christmas holidays, it became crystal clear to me that it was the relationships with family and friends, not the opening of gifts that pull me back to my little Midwest town. It is sharing experiences with others that make the holidays meaningful. With this impetus, I planned my first experience gift!

Me lighting a Chinese lantern during the first experience for my family

The first experience I designed for my family was five years ago. It started by taking them for a walk down to the river near our house where they where served a snack and my grandfather told a story about the substantial transformations he has lived through. Next we walked to a family friend’s house where a couple of my mother’s closest friends prepared a delicious four-course meal. I left halfway through the meal to join in lighting hundreds of candles leading down a big hill to a meadow where I made a big fire. When my family went down the candle lit path they found a large group of their 40 closest friends waiting for them. Another friend warmed up apple cider for everyone to enjoy. Everyone mingled, laughed and warmed themselves by the big fire for twenty minutes. Next, I brought out fifty Chinese sky lanterns and I asked everyone to write a wish or dream. We lit all of the lanterns, and watched them rise off into the sky. The group slowly dispersed in groups walking through the woods back to their cars.

This tradition has continued for the last 9 years.Some years ago my mother took the torch, and gave the whole family an experience: a veggie burger cook off — it was inspired by the The Great British Bake Off, with hilarious judges and all!

Above is the high level journey map I used while creating the first experience for my family. Read more about using the 5E model here.

It is not easy to design experiences. It is much easier to buy a gift.

It takes much more effort and time to design an experience, you have to plan it, involve people to help you, buy all the supplies and clean up. It also requires more vulnerability to design an experience, as you are publicly sharing your creativity. The first experience for my family had 13 people involved. When I don’t have time to plan an experience, I will give a gift certificates to a B&B or to a nice restaurant. There are increasingly more options to gift experiences. Just don’t forget, that a big part of what makes an experience special is if you make it unique and personal for the receiver.

Questions to ask yourself if you want to give an experience to someone:

  1. What relationship do you value most?
  2. What does this person dream of? What do they really want but don’t ask for?
  3. Who are the important people to this person? How can they be involved in co-creating the experience?

We need to be architects of our relationships. Eminent neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says: “When it comes to your experiences and perception, you are much more in the drivers seat than you might think… You are an architect of your experience.” We can design and build, meaningful experiences that will in turn create meaningful relationships. Only through questioning the existing practices around gift giving can we invent something better. It is important that we realize our agency to create and shape these experiences for our friends and family. The best gift you can give people you love is a shared experience.

Copenhagen 2017

//Andy Sontag

Andy Sontag is the program leader at the Kaospilot Experience Design Professional Training, where the tools, methods and mindsets taught can be applied in a professional and personal context.



Andy Sontag

Designing experience that enable people and relationships to grow ☀️ // Kaospilot Experience Design: