The Secret to the Perfect Anniversary Gift, According to Science

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Anniversaries have a set script. After the first year, you get something made out of paper. At the 12th (!), you get pearls. If you subscribe to the whole "diamonds are forever" thing, you can "honor her with a diamond anniversary ring that celebrates your love and commitment" on any year, according to some highly gendered ad copy from Zales.

Of course, that's all bullshit.

Celebrating your anniversary can be an incredibly important marker of continued dedication to a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily have to come with $101.96 long stem roses or a $4,299 white gold diamond ring

That's because the best anniversary gifts probably won't even fit in a box. When it comes down to celebrating love, you really should be spending on experiences.

Experiences trump objects: While a new watch will eventually lose its novelty, the trip you both took to Costa Rica will play on as a funny story you tell at dinner parties. Still reliving that time you saw Mumford and Sons with your significant other? Of course. What about that time they gave you new linens, or even that tennis bracelet? Not so much.

Researchers from Cornell University found that when it comes to gift giving, experiential purchases make people a lot happier than material purchases. The 2014 study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that the enjoyment of an experience-based gift goes far beyond the purchase. 

One reason is because even if the experience is fleeting, the enjoyment of it starts before it even arrives. People who anticipate experiences, those concert tickets or airline reservations burning a hole in their pockets, are far happier than those who simply purchase an item outright. 

"You can think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation," study co-author Amit Kumar told the Atlantic, "and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive."

Not only can you not share in the experience of a diamond necklace with someone, but it ultimately doesn't really affect who you are or how you relate to your S.O. in the long term. An experience, on the other hand, sticks with you.

As the Atlantic's James Hamblin writes, experiential gifts are powerful because ultimately they're not about a gift, they're about "identity, connection and social behavior." Our experiences are, after all, what we're made of — we carry memories of them, and they contribute to who we become.

Celebrating with something shared: "My partner and I of 10 years either throw a party or take a mini vacation," Amy, 30, told Mic of her non-material anniversary tradition. She's onto something.

A 2013 study in the journal Person Relationships asked 83 couples about their shared relationship activities and found that those who went on satisfying and stress-free activities together had higher relationship quality, both in the short and long term. That's because meaningful shared experience can help form a mini "group identity" and remind couples of what first brought them together. 


Novel experiences — yes, like that Broadway show or that skiing trip — have also been proven to strengthen relationship quality and can stay with us for a long time. Home blog the Nest offers some ideas that go beyond products, such as revisiting the place where you went on your first date or co-planning a two-event date for each other. 

Source: Nocookie

And they don't need to cost money. "My husband draws me comics of our adventures from the previous year," Kate told Mic. "It gets me in the feels every time."

"I always give a BJ. One size fits all," one woman joked to Mic.

Whether we think anniversaries are even worth celebrating, commemorating staying together is only meaningful when couples remember why their relationship is so significant and special in the first place. 

"Whether it's getting a massage and staying at a B&B or cooking dinner at home together, true human connection within a couple will win over anything," Sally, 32, a woman in a committed relationship, told Mic. Now that's really valuable.

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Kate Hakala

Kate is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mic. A former editor of Nerve, her writing has also appeared in the The New York Times, Playboy, Refinery29, Salon, and The Daily Dot. On most days she is thinking of Louis C.K.

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