The gift of experiences

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By Liz Stucke


The Lego Ninjago, Destiny’s Bounty is the toy my son most desired for his birthday. It was wonderful to watch him open his birthday gift. As he tore off the wrapping paper and saw the images of Sensei Wu and the Masters of Spinjitzu spinning around the dragon ship, he began to shake and then jump up and down, “Thank you, thank you, Mom and Dad! This is exactly what I wanted. I love you soooo much.”

Now, he is happy, or so we thought, until three days later. We were in Target shopping for the usual – socks, dishwasher detergent, a flashlight, dog food, and then, before I knew it, he ran across the aisle to behold in his shaking little hands The Lego Monster Fighters Vampyre Castle.

“Please, Mom, can I buy it?”

“No, absolutely not. You just got all those birthday presents.”

“But Mom, I didn’t know about the Monster Fighters before. If you buy this for me, I will never need a toy again. Well, also, I think I need the Monster Fighter’s Ghost Train too, but that’s all. I promise.”

You might think that I am a bit naïve or at least new to the parenting scene, but my five year old is my fourth child. Before Ninjago and Monster Fighters, there was the “need” for the newest American Girl doll, the Nintendo DS, and iPods, with new versions each year. This need for new things does not stop there. It continues with the need for nicer cars and bigger houses or whatever the neighbors have and a little more. As H.L. Mencken observed, “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Buying more stuff beyond meeting our essential needs does not make us any happier according to years of research. Richard Layard in his book Happiness, Lessons From A New Science states, “Life may be better for some, but the evidence is that for most types of people in the West, happiness has not increased since 1950.” This is shocking for a society where living standards have more than doubled. So, why is it that we are wealthier but not happier, and if money does not increase our happiness, then what does?


“While the word “significant” intimidates students, it does not have to be a huge event. Little actions and experiences define a person.”


While university departments exist to answer these questions, I will point to one answer, that of increased happiness through experiences: what we do, rather than the products we own. Just like my son thinking he would be happier if he had the Lego Ninjago’s Destiny’s Bounty, we are poor predictors of what makes us happy for the long term, and we adapt to new situations, so that the boost in happiness derived from getting a new toy is short-lived.

Experiences, however, such as going to a musical concert, hiking or traveling with family are more likely to increase happiness for a longer period. With experiences a person gains happiness through 1) anticipating and dreaming about the experience, 2) the experience itself and finally and most importantly 3) remembering the experience.

Helping students recall meaningful experiences to write about for college applications is probably the most rewarding part of my work. Students are asked to “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” While the word “significant” intimidates students, it does not have to be a huge event. Little actions and experiences define a person. I tell my students to focus in on a single experience or choice and then expand on that to reflect on a greater meaning or direction in their lives. In this process of reflection, students often find a deeper sense of connection and happiness in their experiences, especially with their families.

As for my son, while the Destiny’s Bounty lies on a bookshelf, he has been busy building a boat, “not a pretend one,” he tells me, but “a big one that will even fit you, Mom, and maybe Dad too.” So far, it is about 5 feet long made of sticks and scrap lumber held together with strings. Yesterday, he asked me to help install a sail, so we can put it in the creek this summer. Sounds like an experience of a lifetime to me.


Liz Stucke is owner of LS Admissions Prep (  She guides students and parents through the College Search and Application process. or 865-951-0639.

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