10 'Experience' Gifts That Keep on Giving

Theater tickets, subscriptions and memberships are gifts people will enjoy long after the holidays.

Two women viewing paintings while attending an art exhibition
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Research indicates that experiences make us happier than things do. With that in mind, some holiday shoppers are turning from the mall to the museum, looking for experiences their friends and family can enjoy all year.

Many museums, arts organizations and local attractions are offering deals on gift memberships, theater tickets and more. And those aren't the only gifts that keep giving.

Jenni Person of Miami likes to give magazine subscriptions to her children as well as relatives and friends. "It gives so much more than a toy or a piece of clothing or a trinket," she says, adding that she particularly likes sharing her favorite magazines with friends or family who live far away. "It almost takes the place of an ongoing conversation."

[Read: Not-So-Traditional Ideas for Holiday Gifts.]

Dewey Blanton, director of strategic communications for the American Alliance of Museums, likes to give Smithsonian Museum memberships, even to friends outside Washington, D.C., because the membership includes a subscription to the popular magazine.

Giving memberships to museums, botanical gardens and zoos, or season tickets to theaters or music performances, is a win-win-win for the giver, says Joseph Goodman, associate professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis., who has studied happiness and gift-giving. He notes that gifts of experiences often make recipients happier, with some caveats. "Giving to a charity and to someone else and an experience – it's the trifecta," he says.

Giving an experience gift is riskier, he notes, because it falls outside social norms. To choose such a gift, you need to know the recipient's taste in music, theater, magazines or museums. But the right experience gift rates high on the happiness scale. "The reason experiences lead to more happiness is because they usually have a social component," Goodman says.

But an experiential gift can also put a burden on the recipient, so it's important to make sure you've made a good choice. A spa day may sound like a wonderful gift for a new mother, for example, but it isn't a great gift if she has to pay for a babysitter or pay for extra services and a tip once she arrives.

Experience gifts work especially well for couples because both parties can enjoy the experience, no matter which is the giver. Susan Weiner, a writer in Newton, Mass., gave her husband, Allan Lewis, a concert outing for his birthday last summer, and they are still enjoying the memories. For the December anniversary of their meeting, she is giving him tickets to a folk concert and a dinner out. For her birthday, he usually organizes a day trip.

Are you looking for a holiday gift that keeps giving all year? Here are 10 suggestions:

1. Museum memberships. An annual membership to the Smithsonian costs $19 and includes 11 issues of the magazine (including iPad access) plus other discounts. Many museums, including the Seattle Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, are currently offering discounted gift memberships. A family membership is often a particularly good value for people with children.

2. Membership to a zoo or botanical garden. More than 200 botanical gardens nationwide participate in the American Horticultural Society program, which provides members of one garden free or discounted admission to others. Many zoos also participate in a program that offers discounted or free admission to other zoos in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Typical membership costs range from $50 to $200.

3. Season tickets to a theater or concert series. You'll also find gift deals and holiday promotions at local theaters. For many theaters, the season is already underway. But the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Ga., for example, is offering a special mini season ticket for the remaining shows in 2014, with a bonus for packages ordered before Christmas. Another option is simply to buy someone tickets to several upcoming shows.

4. A family membership or annual pass to a popular local attraction. An annual pass to the Miami Seaquarium, for example, costs less than two visits, and pass holders also get discounts on other local attractions. Six Flags theme parks are offering free parking passes this holiday season with the purchase of four annual passes to some parks.