Happiness presents: Gifts that give lasting positive feelings

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

On a shelf sits the Christmas trinket. Perhaps it served its purpose: A rip of gift paper and a bright-eyed survey of the wonder of the shiny thing — oohs and aahs and thank yous all around. And the happiness faded away.

But there are Christmas gifts that leave ripples of positive feelings that will stay with a person throughout his or her life — Christmas gifts that coincide with what researchers have discovered about happiness.

And people seem to know these things intuitively. The 2011 American Holiday Study by The United Methodist Church, found that 60 percent of Americans think the holidays are too commercialized and 32 percent wished they were simpler. But still, Americans will spend about $250 to $499 on gifts this Christmas, according to the study.

Hundreds of dollars of gifts that bring fleeting happiness. A good thing, and good things don't last because people adapt.


Human beings adapt very well to changes in life, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and the author of

"The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want."

And adaptation is a good trait to deal with negative events.

James A. Roberts agrees. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the new book "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy."

"Adapting quickly is a good thing when bad things happen to us. When we get hurt or lose a loved one, we adapt. Not necessarily quickly when we lose a loved one, but we do adapt. And when we have a physical malady we quickly readjust to accommodate that new reality," Roberts says.

Unfortunately, perhaps, people also adapt to the good things in their lives.

Lyubomirsky says, "We get a raise in salary and we feel good for a while, then we get used to it, take if for granted, and then want more."

People get used to handbags, cars and even marriage.

"If we get used to everything positive, including purchases, then how can we maintain happiness?" Lyubomirsky says. "One way people do that is to keep buying more. They want that thrill to continue. That is obviously not very good financially and it is not very good for the environment."

We get something and there is a thrill — but the thrill is gone quickly. "You go buy something for someone. On Christmas morning they open it up and the value is gone. Or they read the book or they use the toy and it's gone," Roberts says. "Adapting quickly to new things is really the core to why, as humans, materialism doesn't, pardon the pun, deliver the goods."

But there is a more excellent way to give gifts — and even to buy gifts — that have more happiness staying power.


The 2011 American Holiday Study found that 94 percent of Americans will share a meal this holiday season. Gifts will be exchanged among 76 percent, 63 percent will decorate their homes, 55 percent will go to a holiday party and 48 percent will attend a worship service. But when asked which activities they most enjoy, the highest ones centered around connecting with other people — sharing a meal, traveling to visit friends and family, attending worship services and volunteering time.

This may be a hint about what type of gifts bring more happiness.

"You want to spend your money on experiences and personal growth fostering connections to other people, contributing to the community — these are all the kinds of things that maintain positive emotions over time," Lyubomirsky says.

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