*This is a paid post from an APW Sponsor*
We don’t usually publish sponsored content on Monday, but we’ve got a special essay for you today, on this most holy of internet holidays, Cyber Monday. Longtime APW sponsor and founder of TurtleLove.com, Adrianne Zahner, is currently writing a book about contemporary perspectives on engagement rings (you might remember this awesome essay she wrote on authenticity and engagement rings—it’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever published), and wanted to share some of her findings about our emotional relationship with gift-giving. What she’s discovering so far makes a ton of sense and leaves me much more at peace with both my current holiday budget and my, ahem, whiffed proposal.
In case you hadn’t heard yet (hah!) today is Cyber Monday. Meaning: we should buy stuff. Online. Today. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you’ve spent the last week or so besieged with persistent and bombastic messages about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and any number of other holiday shopping kick-off gimmicks.
We are supposed to START SPENDING.
But what are we spending money on, and why? How can we do it right?
It turns out that spending money on other people actually does make us happier than spending money on ourselves. (Check out this TED talk.) But there’s more. People get more happiness and lasting happiness by spending on experiences, rather than objects, according to Elizabeth Dunn, co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. It seems that experiences that make good stories help us connect with people.
So, if spending on other people is awesome, and buying experiences is extra-awesome, why all the STUFF?
Well, it turns out that material possessions help us define who we are. These objects become part of our “extended self,” and they’re important props in the stories we build about who we are (or want to be). When you give a physical gift, you’re adding a prop to someone else’s story, to that person’s self-narrative. It’s kind of audacious, really. It explains why an unwanted gift can feel so insulting. And it also explains the very reason we want to give and receive gifts. We want to be a part of each others’ lives. We want our lives to include physical reminders of memorable events and special people. And we want our loved ones’ lives to include physical reminders of us.
In a lecture I attended this August, Elizabeth Dunn pointed out an exception to her finding that spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on objects. It turns out that when the object is framed as an experience, it does increase happiness. This certainly seems to be one of the functions of an engagement ring, for example. The procurement and presentation of the engagement ring are experiences, whether restrained or ostentatious. A new engagement ring is also an opportunity to connect with people—to share stories, answer questions, to be happy together. And it’s not just any piece of sparkle—it’s a reminder of who we are and where we fit in the world. Special gifts (like, but obviously not limited to, engagement rings) help us remember and retell the stories of our own lives. Those are the kinds of gifts we want to give (and, well, receive).
In sales training seminars, retailing gurus encourage would-be salespeople to help customers build stories around the gifts they’re buying. It turns out that when we give a gift, we don’t just shove a wrapped box at that person. We SAY something that connects this new object to the narrative. Like: “This reminded me of that time when…” or “I bought it at your favorite store,” or “I know you love the ocean, so I got you this.” It does feel kind of creepy to know that salespeople are trained to help us craft personal stories that match a store’s merchandising goals. On the other hand, when we’re looking for a gift, an object alone isn’t enough. So the salesperson who helps us find an object-story connection is helping us get what we’re actually looking for.
So. It’s the season to buy stuff. And to give stuff. It’s perilous and joyous. It’s audacious and expected.
You can opt in or opt out, or you can craft strategies all your own for coping with this strange season of commercialism and giving. Whatever you do, you’re doing it right if you come out of it with stronger connections to the people you love.
And whatever the stresses, you’re not alone. ’Cause—as a wise woman once sang—everybody’s living in a material world.
Adrianne is currently collecting perspectives for her book, and wants to get as many thoughts from the APW community as possible (because you guys are, inevitably, the smartest people on the internet). Head over here to take the survey and help Adrianne with her book! and don’t forget to check out turtlelove.com during your holiday shopping for awesome gifts for your loved ones.
Photo courtesy of TurtleLove.com