The holiday season is filled with gifts—and empty of what people really want.
We’re seeing a loneliness crisis in our society with 42.6 million adults in the U.S. suffering from it (and that’s not including people under 45)—representing a literal public health epidemic that leads to earlier death… but we keep insisting on buying things, exchanging material goods as if that can somehow make up for what we truly long for: connecting, kindness, love, meaningful non-technology-driven exchanges, eye contact, touch, humor.
We have so much stuff accumulating in our homes, yet research shows that materialism is linked to lower well-being i.e. happiness. We get more stuff for birthdays, anniversaries, wedding showers, baby showers, at holiday times like Christmas and more. We are inundated with stuff—stuff we like, stuff we don’t like, stuff we regift, stuff we end up throwing away—inevitably—at some point. Think about it—how many things in your house can you really hang onto forever? Or will want to hang on to forever. Probably not more than a handful.
A new study out last month shows that kids given more toys reduces the quality of their play and makes them less creative and more distracted. No surprises here—the more stuff we or our children have, the less we can focus on one thing.
Our house is cluttered and so are the landfills. They are full and overflowing with stuff. It’s a sad state of affairs. Yet what makes us truly happy? Interestingly, research shows it’s not stuff (it’s not even money—once you’ve made a certain amount your happiness levels don’t go up by that much with more).
After all, we get used to what we have which leaves us wanting more. We get “habituated” (psych talk for: used to) and bored. That’s why we want new or different things. We stop enjoying that new car we got, or the new shoes. They simply are there, we take them for granted. The happiness is fleeting.
So what should you get your friends and family, or yourself? What really does make you happy?
For one, it’s experiences. Research shows that we prefer experiences over things. People remember shared moments and experiences: whether it was a canoe trip, hiking, a musical or a visit to a museum. We remember what we did. You probably remember what you did on your last vacation way better than the things you got for Christmas or your birthday—even if you remember them, you probably value the experience more.
But wait—not all experiences are the same. Those that are focused on ourselves (say, a trip to the beauty parlor) are going to yield much different results from those focused on others (the surprise party you threw for a friend). You remember the surprise party and probably still feel happy about it but have forgotten about the massage and facial. Taking this one step farther, any experience involving community service for people in need is again going to take your sense of purpose, fulfillment, and meaning to a whole other level. Volunteering your time to support kids, the elderly, animals in need or any nonprofit.
Based on over a decade of researching happiness and well-being, here's my conclusion: altruistic acts, in addition to making this world a better place for those you serve, also lead to the greatest levels of fulfillment. Not just for yourself but for observers are inspired. They, in turn, are more likely to help others.
I once taught a group of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I assigned them to go out and take a homeless person to lunch. They came back crying, saying it was the “most beautiful day of their lives.” There is nothing more profound, humbling and meaningful than true connection with another person—than allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open to others you may have otherwise judged, to giving of yourself without expecting anything in return.
Let’s stop giving people stuff. Let’s stop buying stuff we just don’t need unless absolutely necessary. There's nothing wrong with gifts, they can be fun and useful. But let's get real about what's much more important than just another thing. People are lonely and crave connection. It’s time to give and share what we truly long for: love.
For more on the science of happiness, see The Happiness Track