People feel more happiness and satisfaction from spending their money on experiences rather than things, a growing body of research shows. The stuff we own quickly ceases to be new, so the pleasure gained from a possession fades faster than the memories of a fun experience, according to one study on consumer psychology called, “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.”
“Things bring us happiness when we use them, but not so much when we merely think about them,” say researchers from the University of British Columbia, Harvard University and the University of Virginia.
But good experiences are satisfying both when they happen and when they are savored long afterward. Experiences are also seen as more “self-defining” and unique than possessions. Compared to material things, we’re more likely to share experiences with other people, which magnifies the happiness we get from them. That’s why we decided to include a guide of Minnesota things to do in our annual gift guide. These experiences range from bucket-list thrills to life-expanding learning to quiet respites from daily life. Not all of them will require a liability waiver. But none of them need to be wrapped.
Start your engines
Who it’s for: The grown-up who wishes he still had his Tonka trucks.
What: Extreme Sandbox in Hastings lets you drive its heavy construction equipment — after a bit of instruction — including bulldozers and excavators. There’s even an option to drive a farm combine and harvest crops.
Details: You have to be at least 14, and you don’t need a driver’s license. Packages run from $195 to $895 ($500 extra if you want to crush a car). See extremesandbox.com.
Or try: At Drive A Tank in Kasota, Minn. (driveatank.com), you can drive armored vehicles ranging from a World War II-era Sherman tank to Cold War main battle tanks, as well as shoot machine guns. Packages range from $299 to $2,599; car crushes are extra. Feel the need for speed? Go to the performance driving school at Brainerd International Raceway (birperformance.com/bir-performance-driving-school). You’ll get driving instruction, wear a racing suit and helmet and either take your own car on the track ($350 for a full day) or drive a single-seat Ford Spec Racer ($350 for one session).
Who it’s for: Your stressed-out sweetie.
What: Reserve a steamy spot on the bench inside the 612 Sauna Society’s mobile sauna, parked this winter at The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis (après cross-country ski, perhaps?) with more locations come spring. Past spots include Cedar Lake’s Hidden Beach.
Details: The 612 Sauna Society sells 10-, five- and single-session pass gift certificates ($200, $110 and $25) at 612saunasociety.com.
Or try: Sauna on the rooftop at the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, which has “happier hours” every Thursday with a “sauna meister” ($35 for a day pass, rooms start at $199). Or, steam in the quartz-lined sauna at the Anda Spa inside the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis after indulging in a treatment bath soak (like the lavender and Earl Grey tea bubble bath, $50) or the massage, body wrap and scrub that make up the Ultimate Zen Ritual ($380).
Ready, set, play!
Who it’s for: Active kids of all ages.
What: Race through an urban obstacle course like the star of an action flick chase scene — scaling walls, leaping over railings, tumbling down staircases — by learning parkour and free-running.
Details: Fight or Flight Academy in Edina (fightorflightacademy.com) offers classes for youth (7-14) and adults — including a free introductory session — in various lesson packages, from weekly to unlimited (priced between $42 and $199 per month).
Or try: Conquer a so-called “playground on steroids” at one of several local Ninja Warrior gyms inspired by the TV series, including Obstacle Academy in Edina (obstacle-academy.com). Among the many local indoor rock-climbing facilities, the Minneapolis Bouldering Project (minneapolisboulderingproject.com) is especially kid-friendly, hosting its Pebbles classes for ages 3-5. Or try your hand at the flying trapeze and other acrobatic arts at St. Paul’s Circus Juventas (circusjuventas.org).
Peace and quiet
Who it’s for: Those seeking respite from the hectic holidays.
What: Meditation and silent retreats strip out all of life’s distractions — from buzzing phones to background music to idle chatter — to focus on what’s truly important.
Details: Many retreats are sponsored by religious communities, including those at several local Buddhist meditation centers. But there are secular options, too, such as the monthly, half-day mindfulness meditation retreats ($49) organized by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing (csh.umn.edu). Multiday silent retreats take place at the Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center in Prior Lake (franciscanretreats.net, $220 suggested donation) and the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo (demontrevilleretreat.com, pay what you can).
Or try: If you want complete, utter silence, the anechoic chamber in south Minneapolis’ Orfield Laboratories has earned a Guinness World Record for being the quietest place on Earth (orfieldlabs.com, tours cost $125/person). Or hike, ski or snowshoe over a candlelit snowscape at the Luminary Loppet, Feb. 1 on Lake of the Isles (loppet.org/events/luminary, $11-$30).
Get your food (or drink) on
Who it’s for: Your favorite foodie.
What: Learn how to make your favorite cheeses — from mozzarella to more complex farmhouse Cheddar and crumbly but buttery Caerphilly — while staying in lovely Grand Marais.
Details: North House Folk School, $290, northhouse.org
Or try: Learn how to roll and flip lefse in a Minneapolis class offered by Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace ($40, ingebretsens.com) or bake yummy French macarons in the flavor you choose at Amy’s Cupcake Shoppe in Hopkins ($75, amyscupcakeshoppe.com). More into cocktails? Travail, known for its flavorful, seasonal beverage program, offers classes with their master maker-and-shaker, Nathaniel Smith. Topics range from basic drinkmaking to a deep dive into scotch to the history of the margarita ($100, travailkitchen.com/tickets).
Wild blue yonder
Who it’s for: Someone who wants to experience the right stuff.
What: The Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing is a nonprofit that offers “history flights” on its fleet of authentic World War II era aircraft, including an open cockpit trainer, an artillery observation plane and a twin-engine B-25 “Miss Mitchell” bomber. You’ll even get a chance to take the controls of the training planes.
Details: The history flights take place at Fleming Field in South St. Paul from spring to fall. Costs range from $125 to $450. You have to be 12 or older and there are weight limits. See cafmn.org.
Or try: Soar on a glider ride at Stanton (Minn.) Airfield ($140-$170, stantonairfield.com). Float over an apple orchard in a hot-air balloon with Aamodt’s Hot Air Balloon Rides in Stillwater (aamodtsballoons.com; about $250 per person for a group flight, $800 for a two-person private flight, including a Champagne toast). Or ride a column of air in a vertical wind tunnel at iFLY Minneapolis, an indoor sky diving facility in Minnetonka (packages starting at $69.95, iflyworld.com/minneapolis).
Who it’s for: Cabin fever sufferers seeking an unusual getaway.
What: These expertly curated surprise vacations have a spontaneous feel.
Details: Planning a vacation can be a lot of work. Let somebody else do it for you — and keep your itinerary under wraps until you get to the airport. Pack Up + Go (packupgo.com, road trips start at $400 per person; plane or train trips from $650 per person) and Magical Mystery Tours (magical-mystery-tours.com, weekend trips for two cost $1,500 and up) are among the companies that create customized surprise trips.
Or try: You can sleep in a towboat, train or tepee — or a lighthouse, jail or yurt — without having to get on a plane (search for accommodations at the state’s tourism hub, exploreminnesota.com). At the Mall of America, you can spend the night underwater at the Sea Life aquarium (visitsealife.com, basic package costs $65 per person). For something more conventional, but not too conventional, book a room at the metro’s newest boutique hotel, Celeste St. Paul (celestestpaul.com, $139 and up), in a former convent and art/music conservatory.
Who it’s for: For someone who realizes if you can’t beat it, you might as well enjoy it.
What: Ice climbing is like rock climbing except you’re trying to scale a wall of ice. Hard Water Sports (hardwatersports.com) can literally show you the ropes (and ice axes and crampons) with a day of ice climbing instruction, no experience necessary, for $125, including all the gear.
Details: Hard Water Sports takes climbers to the quarry walls of Robinson Park in Sandstone, home of the Sandstone Ice Festival held every January.
Or try: Answer the call of the wild with a dog sled ride at Lake Byllesby Regional Park in Cannon Falls with HHH Ranch (hhhranch.net, $275-$675 depending on the number of participants). Or rent a fat tire bike at the Trailhead Adventure Shop and take a spin on the miles of snow-covered mountain bike trails in Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis (loppet.org/tt/shop, $50 for two hours).
You’re an explorer
Who it’s for: Someone looking for an excuse to wear a pith helmet.
What: You pay $1,000 ($900 for students) to spend a week sleeping in an old railroad bunkhouse and getting dirty moving tons of earth in a remote part of the country where you’re more likely to encounter a rattlesnake than cellphone reception. The reward is contributing to real science, locating, excavating and preparing dinosaur fossils from the Hell Creek Formation with the Marmarth Research Foundation (mrfdigs.com) in North Dakota.
Details: The volunteer field work usually takes place over three or four weeks in July. Participant fees include three meals a day, lodging and a T-shirt.
Or try: Explore more than 70 feet below ground on an hourlong guided tour of Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, Wis. (acoolcave.org, $10.96-$18.96). Learn how to find and photograph the Northern Lights or meteor showers with Minnesota night sky photographer and author Mike Shaw, who leads photo workshop tours around the country in locations ranging from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to Death Valley (mikeshawphotography.com, $155-$1,795).
Who it’s for: The person who needs to let their inner artist shine.
What: Learn to blow glass alongside the experts at Vandalia Glassworks in South St. Paul; keep on learning through intermediate and advanced classes.
Details: Flexibility is key here — classes can be scheduled any time during business hours (Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday noon-5 p.m.). Prices range from $70 for beginners to make a paperweight to $120 for the more experienced to create a flutter bowl. Note that classes are nonrefundable.
Or try: Grab a friend and create a mosaic trivet, mirror or wall panel with handmade ceramic tile at Mercury Mosaics (mercurymosaics.com, $80 per person). The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has a wealth of opportunities for the entire family, from papermaking and paper marbling to bookbinding and boxmaking (mnbookarts.org, prices vary). Northern Clay Center (northernclaycenter.org) has special offerings for kids, couples and seniors. Have a hard-to-please teenager? Try gifting them a pottery punch card, good for eight, two-hour classes to be used almost any Saturday from noon-2 p.m. ($250).