For those of us that celebrate the holiday, this Christmas will be... different. A worst, we're unable to see our loved ones at all. At best, we've been forced to make extreme sacrifices in order to do so with a modicum of safety. Somewhere in between, many of us are just saying, "Fuck it" and hoping for the best.
Meanwhile, our government leaders are debating whether or not to fund the government, stimulate the economy, and prevent those who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own from dying in the streets this winter. This was an easily preventable, manufactured tragedy. We could have suppressed the virus. We could have passed the Heroes Act in May to prevent this foreseeable suffering.
The truth is, once the stock market was stabilized, Senate Republicans led by the Grim Reaper Mitch McConnell just didn't care enough about you, your friends, or your family to do anything other than confirm far-right judges to the courts. The Georgia Senate runoffs have thrown a wrench into their plans, so, thankfully, we might be getting a late Christmas present from Uncle Sam. That is if the outgoing president doesn't throw the negotiations into more chaos than he already has. If he can help Democrats increase the stimulus checks from $600/person to $2000/person, I won't complain. We may also get nothing and millions of people who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own will bear the brunt of the consequences.
It's not great.
With that in mind, I suspect we could all use a little extra holiday cheer this year. Here's something that might help.
Why is it better to give experiences than stuff?
There are many misconceptions about happiness. One is the idea that money can't buy happiness. It can. In fact, knowing you can make ends meet and having solid financial footing is integral to happiness! We just don't need to be insanely wealthy to get the majority of the emotional benefits from money. Once you earn ~$75,000(adjusting for regional differences in the cost of living), you experience the overwhelming majority of the happiness that wealth can bring.
We also know that societies with greater inequality are less happy than societies with less inequality! Why? It's hard to believe a system is fair, another integral component of happiness, when most people have little compared to a few who have so much.
Another common misconception is that if you want to make people happy, you should always gift them experiences instead of objects.
On one hand, that makes a lot of sense. The happiness we experience from events isn't just tied to the event itself. Planning, preparing, and anticipating an event we are looking forward to makes us happy! The events themselves make us happy too, but, with a few exceptions, the experience of the actual event doesn't make us any happier that receiving an object. However, unlike the object, the event doesn't last forever. Our memories of the event continue to make us happy long after the event itself.
Things work in the opposite way with most objects.
We typically experience the most happiness an object can bring as soon as we receive the object. After that, the object will increase our happiness less and less over time. This is called hedonic adaptation. Here's the textbook definition from Wikipedia:
The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
In layman's terms, that just means we get used to things over time. A great gift will make us happy when we receive it, then we get used to owning it. As we do, the gift makes us less happy.
There are few exceptions to this rule that can give us clues about how to extend the amount of time an object will make us happy.
The first is known as the "Ikea effect." This theory tells us that when we play a role in creating an object it will bring us more happiness than an object we do not create. So, when we are finally able to decode those annoying Ikea instructions to put together a new chair or dresser, we enjoy it more than we would if it arrived assembled.
The second is that we get more happiness from objects that are connected to an event we enjoyed. So, that record you bought at a concert will bring you more joy than downloading the same songs on Spotify even if you never actually listen to the record. The memory of the event is what makes us happy.
Finally, we enjoy objects longer if they change. Your iPhone is a good example of this effect. We can always find new books to read, new songs to listen to, or new photos to look at on our phones.
Phones also give us the potential to connect with our loved ones in meaningful ways even when we can't share space. While we haven't unlocked the secret to making digital experiences with other humans as enjoyable as similar experiences in real life, we know social interaction increases our happiness. Talking with someone on the phone can make us happier than not talking to them at all.
The key here isn't just the social interaction the phone enables. It's that our experiences with the object constantly change. Even if we may get tired of the phone itself, we don't get tired of the experiences the phone enables us to have. This is part of the reason many of us are addicted to social media.
Remix for Joy
This brings us to the point of this post. If you celebrate Christmas, there's a good chance you received a gift that made you happy when you received it. Wouldn't it be great if you could make the joy you are currently experiencing last longer? I would.
Here are a few ways to do that.
First, let's think about the Ikea effect. Even if your gift was assembled when you received it, perhaps you can work to make it even better. If you received a poster, perhaps you can make a frame to put it in. If you received a new jacket, perhaps you can add a sweet patch or two to make it your own.
Next, we can think about how we can tie your gift to an experience. If you received clothing, perhaps you can make a point to wear it to an event you are looking forward to. This will help you tie the clothing to a positive experience like a football fan and their lucky shirt.
Alternatively, if you had a really great Christmas day, you can use the practice of gratitude to tie that gift to your Christmas experience. I have a mug with an inside joke printed on it that Emily gave me for my birthday a few years ago, every time I use the mug, I try to think back to that joke and they joy it brought me. It doesn't always work, but, when it does, it makes my tea taste better than it would if I were drinking from another mug.
Finally, we can think about finding ways to reinvigorate the happiness that an object once inspired in us. If you received a piece of furniture, perhaps try moving it to a different room or rearranging the room it is in to give yourself a little boost of joy. If you're crafty, maybe you can give it a fresh coat of paint. The important thing is to change your experience of the object in order for that object to make you happy again.
In general, experiences provide greater happiness than objects. That doesn't mean we can find ways to manufacture a little more joy out of the things we were gifted. We just might need to remix it a little first.
Let's build a brighter future. Together.