As we approach the holiday season, I’ve been thinking about my upcoming visits with family and how to make the best of every moment together. My family is, sadly, spread out all across the country, so our visits are few and far between. Looking back at visits from previous years, I notice that I hardly remember the details. I remember very few specific gifts (except the year my parents got me a backyard playhouse and built furniture to put inside it!) or the holiday decorations. I do have vivid memories of cooking a holiday meal with my Grandmother and laughing until I cried during a family board game. I think it is that way for almost everyone.
Again, research backs up intuition – experiences impact our happiness and wellbeing more than tangible gifts. A few factors are at play here. Although we might think that having a shiny new toaster will measurably improve our morning routine, we’re actually wired to adapt to our environments in their current state, and that pretty appliance will quickly become an invisible item that blends into the kitchen landscape. This phenomenon, called the hedonic treadmill, means that although getting a new gift during the holidays will lead to a short-term increase in joy, that joy quickly fades away and we focus on acquiring the next item on our list. Experiences (such as vacations, concerts, classes, great conversations, shared feasts, etc.) have a much more long-term impact on our memory banks because we spend an extended amount of time anticipating them. We also tend to reflect positively on the memories, even when things didn’t go perfectly. We learn to construct funny stories for later from the disasters that happen when we gather!
Interestingly, experiences also have a more positive impact on our happiness compared to material purchases even before they have happened! In a cleverly titled article, “Waiting for Merlot,” researchers at Cornell University found that people reported significantly more positive feelings and excitement when thinking about going on a trip or out to a new restaurant than when thinking about getting a new laptop or pair of shoes. It seems that it’s easier for us to savor the positive anticipation of an event rather than an object, and that happy anticipation extends our joy. That might be one reason why it’s easier to remember times spent with family during the holidays – we look forward to them with pleasure in the months leading up to the gatherings. Another factor that gives experiences the edge is that they lead to more relatedness with one another. This has been particularly true for me – the times that stand out in my memory were times that I shared something exciting or meaningful with a family member and our bond grew stronger.
Taken together, if you really want to make the most of your holidays, focus on shared experiences (which, conveniently, often don’t cost a thing!). Of course, it is possible for the act of giving a meaningful gift to become an experience in and of itself. But, in general, time spent with one another will make you happier than breaking the bank to try to please people someone with “the perfect something.” Give your time and yourself, instead.