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
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.
It is about connections and building connections. Lyubomirsky says things like travel or a holiday dinner "really do make people happy. Not only while it is happening, but the anticipation and then the reminiscing. And then you are building relationships that can continue."
This all means spending money on gifts that are experiences or possessions that give people experiences.
"In the last Christmas or so there has been a trend, not in a big part of the market, but a trend away from giving presents and a trend toward giving experiences or services or your time as presents that really do seem to have a more lasting impact" Roberts says. There are many ways this idea can be translated into gift giving. Roberts says instead of buying a knickknack for someone's house, you could offer a young couple with children a restaurant gift card and babysitting for a night. "Not only will they enjoy that more than any kind of knickknack you could buy, but where the value of the gift comes in, is it is bonding too. They are talking and establishing relationships and that is what really what makes us happy."
Relationships. Bonding. Experiences. These are what last longer on the happiness scale.
Another example is buying ice skates for a nephew. Don't make the skates the gift, Roberts suggests, make the gift taking them out to go ice skating. The skates could be part of the gift, or the skates could be rented at the rink. The gift, at its core, is the experience and the sharing time. "The benefit is it is an experience they will remember when they went out with Uncle Jim ice-skating. And it is an opportunity to bond. Because ultimately, what is going to make us happiest is close relationships with other people," Roberts says.
Instead of just giving electronic games, parents can also take kids to watch a baseball or football game.
The concept of giving gifts to build relationships doesn't make gifts necessarily less expensive. You could buy an Alaskan cruise for someone, for example. Or you could plan a monthly picnic or trip to the museum.
It isn't the baseball glove. It's the playing catch.Comment on this story
It isn't the doll. It's the tea party with the aunt.
It isn't the book. It's reading it to a child.
"So if you can give something that helps you forge or establish or reestablish or reinforce an established relationship," Roberts says, "those are the kind of gifts that are going to keep on giving."