Happiness, Gifts, and Why We Can’t Stop Spending Money

An essay on giving


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.

Adrianne Zahner

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  • KC

    I’d note that some people are more “gift”-y than others (helloooo, love languages), so, once again, “know your crowd”. It’s not necessarily about being materialistic in a wealth/possessions-focused way (although that happens, too), but some people carry associations and memories “stuck” to objects, and others… don’t. Some would rather have something that doesn’t fit their decor but that came from someone they love, because decor matching is not as important to them; others will have that drive them up the wall.

    We’ve all got different levels of “stuff” toleration, different definitions of “ideal social time”, different things we find meaningful, etc. So, knowing that someone would rather get a handwritten letter, or would rather you teach them how to make that pie of yours they *love* (or, um, receive a pie), or would rather get cash they can spend on something that fits in their apartment, or would rather get a magazine or museum subscription, or would rather receive something that you went out and bought on purpose just for them… this is good stuff to figure out. :-) And if you figure out how to figure it out, let me know…

    • KEA1

      THIS. I have actually taken the love languages quiz and come out with exactly ZERO hits for “giving and receiving gifts.” I know a lot about how I got this way, but oh my, receiving gifts is a spectacularly stressful experience. Explaining this to people is *also* an extremely stressful experience. So if anyone has gracious ways of saying that gifts actually upset me pretty heavily (preferably ways that don’t require me getting into all the details as to why, and preferably ways that don’t open up too many opportunities for people to try to scold me for how horrible I am for feeling this way…) please let me know!

      • Emilie

        Exactly! I also scored a ZERO on the love language of gifts (receiving and giving).

        My shower’s coming up in a few weeks, and I could definitely use some tips on how to cope with the whole present opening thing. If I’m being honest with everybody, it’s much easier for me to be gracious to folks and thank them for their presence at my shower than, say, their presents at my shower. But so much of the event is centered around the gift-opening-thing. I’d much rather be having a conversation with somebody sans material item distracting me.

        Any tips out there? Basic formula I can execute each time I open something?

        • juliadee

          Something we did at my shower that helped a lot is the giver was asked to tell a story or share a favorite memory of us together while I was opening the gift. It took pressure and attention off of me and it brought out a lot of great stories I hadn’t heard before!

        • Tuppet

          Might not help you but for my kitchen tea (similar to a shower) everyone was asked to give a recipe instead of a gift. They were sent an index card and there was a box on the table to collect them – so basically the present part of the day was eliminated by redirecting people’s energy towards a different gift.

        • KC

          I hated showers. The whole “room full of people staring at you while you try to socially perform in a repeated-but-not-too-repeated manner” thing was just… augh. It was very lovely of people to give us gifts and to want to give us gifts, but I really-really-really don’t like being the in-person center of attention.

          A sometimes-workable formula is:
          1. read tag/card on gift
          2. identify person in room and look directly at them saying “Oh, it’s from [person]!”
          3. open gift (hopefully some people are now distracted looking at [person]), taking the last bit of paper off slightly more slowly to give yourself a smidgen of time to identify the gift and think of what to say, or holding it up for people to see and looking admiringly at it while you figure out what on earth it is
          4. either say a straight “oh, thank you, [person]!” (looking at them again) or identify something positive/useful/personally meaningful about the gift (what you plan to do with it, “oh, I love orange!”, “what a nice [item]!”). Having a few “I have no idea what to say” phrases, such as “I bet [future spouse] will be so excited about this” or “Oh, how lovely/unique!” or “It’ll always remind us of you” or “oh, it’s so like you!” [if an item is, say, not at all what you would have chosen in a million years] up your sleeve in advance is a good plan, as some small percentage of gifts may not inspire an immediate positive thought. If a duplicate item occurs within the same shower, sometimes it can be tossed off as a joke (“Oh, now we’ll have a kitchen toaster and a living room toaster!”, etc.).

          Unfortunately, unless you made it into a running gag, it’s probably not feasible to say the exact same thing about each present. And sometimes running gags get stale. But a rotation of slight variations on “Oh, thank you!”, “How useful!”, and “How lovely!” should work fine.

          Lingerie showers are, oddly, easier in some ways, because everyone expects you to be awkward/not-know-what-to-say/dumbfounded/etc.

          I’ve also heard about alternatives, such as having a friend help you open the gifts or hand them around or having them on a table unopened (although you’d want to warn people in advance on that one, since some people like to see your response to their gift; see: gift people vs. not-gift people).

          In any event, having someone who is writing down what came from who (or taping the card securely onto the bottom of each gift) and having someone do the gift hand-off and paper-clear-away is good for showers above 5 people, just so you can focus your attention on identifying what on earth things are. :-)

          • Guest

            This is so helpful! Some other good advice I heard from a friend was to enlist your wedding party to ooooh and awwww and make a big deal for you when you’re struggling.

          • KC

            People being specifically assigned to be an “oooh and awww” chorus is a fantastic idea! In my admittedly anecdotal experience, most “don’t look at me!” people have at least some “stage front and center!” friends, so that would be a great division of labor. :-)

          • Emilie

            This is so helpful! Thank you!

          • KC

            I’m so glad it was helpful! And I hope you have a lovely time. (repeat: these gifts and this experience are an expression of peoples’ love for me, however misguided that expression might be…)

      • KC

        I have found that in many cases saying that you like X more than Y (when Y is what would more likely happen otherwise) can sometimes be more effective and result in less uncomfortable explanation than going for a no-replacement-offered “Please, no Y”. If there’s something (like spending time with a person or getting to learn a skill of theirs you’ve always kind of wanted to know how to do or having their help with a project or something) that can feel like a contribution from their side but not trigger your “augh! it’s a gift! duck and cover!” response, that might work with some people. (other people, gifts = items, and I do not totally know what to do with these people.)

        (if it’s *receiving anything at all from anyone* including help or time or anything that is the problem, I also understand that, but it might be good to aim for therapy or some form of self-help or something, because 1. it is good to receive good things from safe people, 2. healthy relationships usually have some degree of reciprocity and healthy relationships are a good thing to have your life filled with, and 3. it is most likely frustrating to the people who love you to not be able to “give” to your life (okay, 3 is sort of just 2 stated in a different way. But y’know.) )

        • KEA1

          MUCH love for the “X rather than Y” idea, and many thanks, because I think that will go a long way. Also, much love for the point about healthy relationships and reciprocity; I have a lot easier time with gifts from (and to) the people with whom I feel that the relationship is most healthy. Rather telling, that… ;)

        • lady brett

          my solution for “gifts=items” people (which i have had to figure out due to my wonderful mother-in-law) is to revert to a wish list. one of the awesome things about being an adult is that when, say, i’m organizing my tools and realize i would *love* to have a quality tool chest, i can go out and buy it. but for non-essential things, i sometimes reevaluate and put them on my “oh, but it’s only 4 months ’till christmas, and that costs about what my in-laws will spend on a present.” because, really, waiting 4 months for something i would rather have now is so much better than the guilt and awkwardness of getting something you’ve no use for/interest in.

          it’s a little silly, and this technique obviously only works for folks who will follow your wish list – and it doesn’t actually negate the gift-giving weirdness, but it *is* a lot easier for *everyone* to be excited about it if it’s something you genuinely want and need, so i find it does help.

          • KC

            That is smart. And it would kill off at least that little bit of gift-receiving awkwardness wherein the item is just never going to actually see the light of day (I’m looking at you, zebra-patterned knockoff snuggie) but you do not entirely know how to not say that and yet would prefer not receive any similar gifts and so do not want to encourage this as something to repeat…

            Having the “can I wait until Christmas/birthday? Yep.” pattern in your head probably also helps reduce the mental assumption of instant gratification of all material wishes, as a side benefit. :-)

            But getting a tool chest that you do in fact want instead of, say, a super-fancy aromatherapy set that you are allergic to? That is *priceless*.

  • Dom

    Urgh, I love the feeling of Christmas and the holidays but I’m always reminded that me and my fiance come from two completely different backgrounds with this. His family always had a good amount of money and they never wanted for anything. For the weeks leading up to Christmas everyone is listing off things they would like, and they aren’t small lists.

    Then we go to my family, and everyone says they are just happy we are cooking and that they don’t need any gifts other than our love, because there have been Christmas’ where that’s all we could give.

    Now that he isn’t working, he is still trying to live how he grew up with lavishing people with gifts, which we really can’t afford seeing as my income doesn’t cover all of our monthly expenses and we are dipping into savings just to keep food in the fridge. Hard to explain that giving and showing our love for others shouldn’t mean that we have to go without our basic needs, and that anyone we give a gift to probably wouldn’t be happy to get it if they knew we couldn’t afford it.

    But, that is putting logic against pride and tradition. :/

    • Karen

      Different spending styles and experiences can be really hard, especially at the holidays. I wish you both well as you navigate this terrain.

  • MisterEHolmes

    This was a great post, but I’d say another reason we give items rather than experiences is access: it’s a lot easier (and cheaper) to give a thing you think someone will like than to give an experience we think someone will like, and I say that as someone who has really tried to give experiences where possible. Experiences require a lot more thought and hunting-out than an item; sweaters are in every store, but a motorcycle-riding experience may only be at once place.

  • Caiti_D

    I enjoy the thought that objects can be framed in a narrative. It’s intuitive, as with souvenirs, but maybe not obvious! I also wrote about materialism/objects, recently, if anyone is interested: http://adinstinctum.blogspot.com/2013/11/hunter-gatherer.html