Once the leftovers have been sorted, the good china has been put away, and the last of the Thanksgiving guests have left the house, Americans’ thoughts quickly turn to Christmas. More specifically, they start thinking about all the delicious loot they’re going to give and get.
Discussions of who’s giving what to whom and which stores are having sales and who wants which thingamabob, gizmo, gadget, and doodad dominate many a family conversation during the month of December. We accept gift giving as part and parcel of the holiday season, but few of us ever really stop to think about what should be an obvious question: do we really need more stuff? If you have to think about it, the answer is probably no.
This is not a call for a return to the real meaning of Christmas, or an exhortation to forgo gift giving entirely. The holiday season—whichever holiday you choose to celebrate—is what you make of it, and the act of giving a gift can be extremely pleasurable and rewarding. But before you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on presents that will provide only fleeting satisfaction, consider these five reasons to put the brakes on out-of-control gift giving.
1. More Stuff Doesn’t Make Us Feel Good
A series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that possessions, although they provide a momentary boost in happiness, tend to ultimately leave people feeling unfulfilled. After you get a new video game system, you’re invariably disappointed when a new model comes out six months later. Or you’re upset when you find out that your friend bought her father the same watch you bought yours, only she paid considerably less than you did. With concrete possessions, it’s all too easy to compare them—their prices, their features, their newness—re-evaluate them, and regret them, which leaves us feeling disappointed in the end.
2. It’s Exactly What Retailers Don’t Want
During this time of year, you’re likely to see commercials that suggest that if you don’t buy X toy or Y gadget for your kids, they’ll surely be scarred for life. You’re also likely to see seductive in-store displays of merchandise, and advertisements with enticing sale prices on gift items. Don’t forget that retailers spend millions of dollars on the study of consumer psychology, and everything—everything—you see and hear during the holidays is designed to get you to buy, buy, buy. Retailers’ message is that giving gifts = getting love, and this is often communicated in surprisingly unsubtle ways. Do you really want to play into their greedy hands? Besides, unless you’re shopping only at independent stores that sell locally made goods, any money you spend will go toward padding some faraway corporation’s bottom line, rather than enriching your local community.
3. Trash Is Choking the Planet
The reason companies are continually coming out with newer, better, faster, and shinier models of items we already own is that they know people will buy the new ones even if they don’t need them. That means hundreds of millions of perfectly usable toys end up in landfills. When we upgrade phones, televisions, and iPods, that trash often ends up being shipped to the developing world, where it’s broken down for parts using methods that are hazardous to the environment and to human life.
4. Experiences Matter More Than Things
Another study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that experiences are much more difficult to quantify than things and often compare unfavorably to each other. It’s easy to compare gadgets, but who can compare one vacation with another to determine which was more fun or which was the better value? People who spent money on experiences, like going to see a band or taking a trip, were significantly happier with their purchases than those who bought “stuff.” When people buy or give experiences rather than items, the recipient uses a mental strategy called satisficing; he or she accepts the experience as it is and doesn’t dwell on how it could have been better, cheaper, or more exciting. You are more likely to enjoy an experience and less likely to compare it unfavorably with something else.
5. There Really ARE Starving People in China
It may be easy to brush past the Salvation Army bell ringers or walk the other way when you encounter a panhandler, but don’t forget that many people in the world are barely surviving. To put it into perspective, the National Retail Federation estimates that American shoppers plan to each spend an average of $689 on Christmas gifts this year. This amount is higher than the entire yearly salary of most rural people in India, China, and Africa. According to the World Bank, about one-third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day. While Americans are fretting about toys and games, children in much of the world lack clean drinking water, schools, medical care, food, and clothing. If donated to Heifer International, the average American’s holiday budget would allow a poor family to buy an entire cow, which they could raise to provide milk, and which would enable them to earn a living. If given to charity, that amount would provide clean drinking water for thirty-four people for twenty years. A sweater or DVD will be enjoyed, but will be quickly forgotten. If even a few people took some of the money they were planning to spend on Christmas presents and donated it to a worthy cause, we could make a big impact on the lives of the poor.
This year, think twice before rushing out to score the best Black Friday deals or buying the latest, greatest tech toy. A well-chosen gift is a great pleasure for both the giver and the receiver, but giant piles of loot, given for giving’s sake, do nothing but diminish the sentiment behind the act. Money can buy fancy gadgets and glittering baubles, but it can’t buy the things that we’re all really seeking: love, connection, and, of course, happiness.