"Oh joy!" Nothing brings out holiday nostalgia like jabbing elbows in frantic crowds. Visions of a classic, authentic, shopping-free Christmas dance in our heads. Yet, even if Santa delivered on that time machine you asked for to travel back to purer times -- you'd be wasting a trip. Spending has always been the spirit of the season, and that's fantastic. Research shows gifting is actually good for us.
Our original American Christmas is a unique recipe, one that has been handed down for just over 100 years. It combined a Dutch Christmas cookie, British greeting card, and a German tree. It has folded in a dash of charity, with or without excessive displays of wealth, then whisked it all into the Christian origin story with pagan Saturna traditions. Finally, it was baked in a pressing national need to create something iconic to unite immigrant groups and drive the economy. Before it was combined, they were just ingredients, the most potent being that it simply wouldn't be Christmas without gifts.
But our longing for a consumerism-free Christmas doesn't have to be wasted. There's one gift that let's you skip the lineups and stampedes and bring real joy to yourself, your entire wish list, and the world at large.
Could Santa have it all wrong?
No, but he may be an addict (and I'm not talking cookies here). Research shows that the act of giving feels really good. We strangely look forward to the repetitive music and kitschy decor with warmed hearts. We call the feeling "the holiday spirit" and celebrate "the season of giving." Psychology calls it "altruism." Not only does giving to others increase our personal feelings of well-being, but the acts actually light up the same areas of the brain associated with rewards, similar to sugar or sex. Also, generosity doesn't just create a lasting sense of wellbeing. It's strongly correlated with longer lifespans and better health. This could explain jolly St. Nick's longevity.
So, what can we steal from the Grinch?
There are certainly caveats, but getting everything you want for Christmas can be unsatisfying. Even after the panicked present hunts, receiving material things doesn't necessarily pay off (beyond the guilty pleasure of wrapping paper tornados). In many studies, such as this, people reported lower well-being when gifts and shopping were the focus of their Christmas. What boosted happiness? Those whose holidays focused on more traditional experiences, including acts of togetherness, gratitude, or spirituality. This isn't exactly news. Many of us look forward to the family time that the holidays bring. But this small study is supported by a bigger picture.
The desires for material things, even when you acquire them, has been shown to decrease happiness. It seems counterintuitive that getting what you asked for could be a downer. However, materialistic values are linked to lower life satisfaction. Still, current Christmas culture continues to sing carols of these longings. Ads bombard us with images of laughing and smiling families holding new products. But research shows that receiving gifts often provides just short term feelings of happiness at best, and your receiver's wishlist may actually leave them wanting.
How can you both give and receive? Donate your Christmas
An entire, miniature snowy village fits beneath the bows of my friend's family Christmas tree. They have space for it because they don't give gifts to each other - they donate. Each member selects a cause close to their heart, and they all pitch in. Charities themselves have even started reaching out to members with the idea, with the rising popularity of "donating your christmas" as a prime example. Altruism runs hand in hand with charity, so helping others while making them feel good too is like a happiness twofer for Christmas donors.
So, is being Santa selfish?
Yes, but in a way that spreads festive cheer. Giving back is the best gift you can receive, plus you get to avoid mall madness by tearing up your wishlist and shopping lists. Embrace the tradition of spending this year. Instead of "What should I give this Christmas?" ask "Where should I give?"