Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.

Jonathan Fader Ph.D.

The New You

Stop Giving Gifts: Unlocking Joy this Holiday Season

An experiment for the holiday season.

Posted Dec 23, 2014

Before you ask: I’m not the grinch.

I’d like to propose a radical experiment this holiday season: stop buying each other “stuff.” That means no gadgets, no toys, and especially no gift cards.

Instead, give “experiences.” Tickets to a concert, or the spa, or even better, something you’ve planned yourself (like a camping trip). You, and the recipient, may thank me in the end.

Years of psychology research have made it clear that material possessions aren’t what make us happy.

Why experiences, then? Back in 2009, researchers from San Francisco State University found that people who spent money on vacations, dinners and events (experiences) had more long-term satisfaction than those who spent it on physical items. Spending money on events yields social interaction that physical items don’t, and may provide lasting memories. I’m sure you can recall an amazing concert you went to, but do you really think of your first cellphone with the same kind of fondness?

But it’s not just that experiences are “better” than material things. There’s a bigger problem that psychologist have studied that many call “Keeping up with the Joneses.” The concept is simple: Mr. or Mrs. Jones, next door, has a 4k TV projector, why don’t we? Or, I need to get the new Mustang to impress the guys at work. More often than not, it just doesn’t make financial sense. But aside from the implications for your budget, it also has some pretty alarming psychological effects. Research has found that people who highly valued material possessions were less satisfied with their lives. And people who have low self-esteem are more likely to “keep up with the Joneses” as a coping mechanism.

Asking for the latest tech this year probably won’t bring you the happiness you want. But that’s not to say giving is bad. Spending money on others yields more satisfaction than spending money on oneself. People who donated to charity or took friends out to lunch were reportedly happier than those who didn’t, for instance.

So how can we be joyful this holiday season? You don’t need to be a spiritual person to get back to the “roots” of the holiday. It’s loving relationships that make humans thrive, not material things. Take your family out to the movies, write those cheesy coupons that say “Good for one home-cooked meal,” and try not to let your family’s nagging get on your case too much.

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