Quilted Science

Patchwork thoughts on psychology, neuroscience, and human behavior.

What if the Grinch Really Did Steal all Christmas Presents?

We might actually be happier.

He might seem like a hairy and crabby green thing, but the Grinch was on to something when he tried valiantly to ruin Christmas in Who-ville.  After stuffing his bag with all the presents and decorations, he retreated to his mountain cave, thinking he was carrying Christmas in its entirety.  Much to the Grinch’s dismay, the holiday still happened. 

Maybe he should have kept the presents.

 “He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! / IT CAME! / Somehow or other, it came just the same!”

Standing in the snow beside his dog, the Grinch has an epiphany about the true meaning of Christmas: Christmas is not about gifts.

“’Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. / ‘Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!’” 

Dr. Seuss wrote the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957.  During the ensuing 56 years, Christmas has become more commercialized.  There are more gifts purchased, and giving gifts has more importance.  There is media coverage about how much money on average people are going to spend, whether this is more or less than last year, and holiday spending is even used to analyze the overall health of the nation’s economy.

The motivation behind gift giving is to give something that makes the recipient, usually someone you love, happy.

A Christmas necessity?

But research from behavioral economics shows that the pile of gifts that now seems to be considered a Christmas necessity actually does not make people happy.  The reason why is adaptation. 

Adaptation happens in our bodies at all levels – at the microscopic level and in our behavior.  If you stimulate a neuron in the same way repeatedly, its electrical response to that stimulus decreases over time. 

Christopher Hees, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studies happiness by looking at hedonic adaptation in people.  Hees and his colleagues define hedonic adaptation as “the tendency to feel less hedonically sensitive to an ongoing stimulus with the passage of time.”  In other words, after some passage of time, that gift that we were so excited about on Christmas morning no longer makes us happy. 

In the big-screen movie of Seuss’ book, Jim Carrey’s Grinch criticizes the Who celebration by acknowledging many Christmas gifts end up in the garbage, with him up on Mount Crumpet.

Hees’ work supports the idea of discarding Christmas gifts.  He classifies variables that contribute to happiness and studies how they impact happiness.  The variables can be anything from the temperature of a room, whether or not you are lonely or stressed, or a consumable item such as that festively wrapped gift under the Christmas tree.

Hees labels variables like temperature and feelings “Type A” and shows that people have an inherent scale by which to judge their value.  In his papers, Hees uses the example of taking a shower.  The first time you take a cold shower, it is a really terrible experience.  The 50th time you take a cold shower, it is not a terrible experience anymore. (Well, maybe for some, certainly not me!)  But a cold shower is never as pleasant as a nice long hot shower.  

Gifts fall on the other end of Hees’ proposed spectrum, and he labels those kinds of variables “Type B.”  Examples given in his papers include the size of precious stones in jewelry, brands of purses or shoes, or the horsepower of car engines.  People assign value to these kinds of things by comparing what we have to what others have.

People are adaptable, as Hees and colleagues note, but people do not adapt equally to everything.  Hees’ work shows that people do not hedonically adapt to Type A variables as much as they do to Type B variables.  They illustrate this phenomenon with an example comparing house size versus commute.

“When people move from a small home to a large home they will initially feel happy, but before long they will adapt and become hedonically insensitive to the new home size.  When people’s commuting decreases, they will also initially feel happy, but they will not easily adapt or become insensitive to this improvement.”

Hees further points out that “events that are stable and certain are easy to adapt to, and events that are variable or uncertain are difficult to adapt to.”

Items commonly given as gifts for Christmas meet the former criterion, and people hedonically adapt to them.

Now, I’m not a Scrooge. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays, and I do really enjoy buying gifts for others. But when I think back on my childhood Christmases, my strongest and fondest memories are not of the consumable gifts.  I remember being with my family: my parents reading stories on Christmas Eve, before bed; listening to and singing Christmas songs; staying up late with my siblings.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist by training, science writer by choice.

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