‘Tis the season to be jolly.
But for many of us the holidays can bring their fair share of stress and anxiety. There’s a huge expectation that we should be having fun – but the pressures of planning complicated meals, buying gifts and spending time with family members can be something we come to dread.
And this time of year can feel even worse for those of us who struggle financially, or can’t be with their families or loved ones. I know exactly how tough things can be (which is why Halloween remains my favorite holiday).
So my goal over the next couple of weeks is to share some strategies that you can use to derive as much happiness as possible from the festive season.
For starters, we all want to give our friends and loved ones the “perfect” gift. We want to show the people we care about that we value them by investing money, time or thought into our gift buying.
We also want the things we give to reflect who we are as people - to show we’re generous, imaginative, and tasteful. We almost want to prove that we’re mind-readers - able to select exactly the right item.
And this means that if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves agonizing over what to buy people. Giving what seems like the wrong gift can feel… just awful.
So here are some science-backed tips on how to reduce the mental burden of gift giving this year:
Be a Giver: Don’t be put off by the initial stress that comes from finding the perfect gift. Thinking through the right present may involve some thought and time – but it’s also good investment in your own wellbeing. As I’ve mentioned before, spending money on other people is a great happiness booster. Research shows it even makes us happier than treating ourselves to something new.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: “It’s very hard to know what’s on the mind of another person,” says Nick Epley – a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a self-confessed megafan of Christmas. Nick’s research shows that even close couples are pretty bad at accurately predicting one another’s beliefs. “The only thing that let’s you know what’s on the mind of another person is to ask them and then to listen.” Nick now asks his wife what gift she’d like… and she’s always happy with it.
Give Happiness: When we think of holiday gifts, we might immediately imagine watches, jewelry or nice clothes. But objects - however luxurious - might not bring your loved ones the greatest happiness. A really great gift can be… the gift of time. Offering a time-famished friend a night of babysitting might make a huge impact on their wellbeing. Likewise, happiness expert Liz Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia - told me that she and her friends make a list of dreaded cores – things they’ve been putting off and had hanging over each of them for ages. As a gift, they pledge to complete these tasks for one another.
Share in the Gift: For the past couple of years, we’ve all had fewer shared experiences than we would have liked. If you can, make your gift work as an excuse for the social interactions that makes us humans so very happy. Join your sister for a spa day, or buy your mom a novel she’ll enjoy and read it along with her like you’re in your own private book club.
Give and Give Again: Gifts aren’t just for the holidays. The whole holiday season can feel like a blowout – lots of food, lots of drink, lots of gifts. And all that fun and good cheer can be a bit much to take in at one time. So try to ration some of the gift experience by buying things that will give you and the recipient a happiness boost at some later date. Book them a trip for next spring… or a surfing lesson they can redeem when the good weather returns.
Give Money: My friend Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University psychology professor, suggests that giving the gift of cash is actually a good option. He admits that it’s not romantic or quite in keeping with the holiday spirit, but it gives the recipient autonomy to pick the gift that suits them best. If you still feel cash is too impersonal, the trick might be to show an interest in what it’s being spent on. Which brings us to…
Be Present: To get the biggest happiness bump, try to be there when your gift gets opened – even if it’s over Zoom. And if that’s not possible, make sure you see the gift in use. If you gave your niece Broadway tickets, then have her send a selfie from outside the theater. Seeing a person enjoying your gift will draw you closer together… and isn’t that exactly what the holidays are all about?
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