Buying Christmas Gifts Won’t Make You Happier

4 minute read
Molly Stranahan has a doctorate in psychology from Rutgers University, founded the Path to Happiness and is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

A few years ago, as I was wrapping the last of more than 100 gifts after midnight on Christmas Eve, I realized my love of the holidays was turning into stress and resentment.

Best Buy is running a television commercial with the line: “When you give tech, people won’t just love it, they’ll love you.” It made me realize that in trying to express my love by finding the perfect gift for each person on my holiday list, I was hoping they would love me.

I decided to stop trying to buy happiness and love by stressing myself out buying, wrapping and delivering gifts that strained my budget and caused sleep-deprivation. When I told my family and friends that I planned to give less so I could enjoy the holidays more, I was surprised to learn that they agreed with me. The arrival of my holiday gifts often triggered feelings of guilt and an obligation to try to reciprocate.

Psychological research indicates being generous makes us happier, but to the extent gift-buying causes stress, it decreases your happiness. Your stress and unhappiness affects the people in your life, especially those who love you most.

The financial cost of gift giving is considerable. The American Research Group reports Americans planned to spend an average of $882 on holiday gifts this year and the National Retail Federation estimates that 20% of total annual retail sales are related to the winter holidays. And for people who charge their gifts and pay off less than their full credit card balance, interest costs can add an extra $150 to $260 a year to the price of their holidays.

Now that I’ve stopped trying to buy other people’s happiness, I give less stuff and try to give more meaningful gifts. Here’s how:

  • I write cards telling each person what I appreciate about them, and what I wish for them.
  • For those I still give gifts to, I ask what they want and need.
  • For those with real needs, I give cash, a check or a gift card to a locally-owned business they like to frequent. I no longer think that isn’t personal enough.
  • For those who like to celebrate the holiday with sweets, I make toffee.
  • Knowing that experiences provide more pleasure than stuff, and that shared experiences create memories that can last forever, I give concert tickets, museum memberships and trips to be with family members who live far away.
  • I buy from local artisans, vendors and non-profits. Not only are their gifts unique, but my money is supporting people in my community.
  • I use cash or checks so the vendor gets the full price, rather than giving a percentage to the credit-card company. When I use a credit card for those much-rarer online purchases, I make sure I have the funds in my checking account to pay the balance when the bill comes.
  • I stay away from stores and don’t look at catalogs so I don’t get tempted into my old habits.
  • I think about the consequences of producing and moving the gifts and what ends up in landfills, and consider whether the gift is likely to add enough to the recipient’s life to be worth the environmental impact of its production and consumption.
  • When I stopped trying to express my love by the thoughtfulness and quantity of my gifts, I started enjoying the holidays more. I am inspired by the example of a friend. Last year she gave each grandchild a trip to the store to pick out the winter coat they wanted, and she took the whole family on a trip to Hawaii, which had the added benefit of maximizing her enjoyment of the trip.

    To be sure, over-gifting maximizes the happiness of retailers, because they focus on sales and profits. Credit-card issuers cheer the increase in debt as money rolls into their pockets. But it doesn’t necessarily give the recipients as much pleasure as you and they hope, or the long-term happiness of knowing you love and appreciate them.

    And it doesn’t buy you love.

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