On Black Friday I completed my holiday shopping. I didn’t buy anything. We enjoyed the physical and mental health benefits of taking a walk in a lovely nature park we’d never been to before.
I don’t have any children (so there’s no social pressure), my parents have passed away, and I have an understanding with my brother and my partner that I don’t exchange Christmas gifts.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t do gifts. I don’t engage in compulsory consumption. Buying gifts between Black Friday and December 25 can often lead to wastefulness, greed, envy, and resentment.
The Wrong Gift
When I was a little boy, nothing drove home the downside of this compulsory giving like my Grandma saying, “You can always return it if you don’t like it,” before I could even get the wrapping paper off her gift. At the time I hadn’t mastered the fake enthusiasm necessary to convince someone that I loved their taste in sweaters.
But, it seems we never managed the trek downtown to exchange the unliked gift for something I actually wanted. Instead, the sweater got shoved in a drawer. Mom’s motto was, “It’s the thought that counts.”
Mom was right. But, unfortunately, the thought was, “I have to get my grandson something for Christmas. I have no idea what he wants or needs. Screw it. I’ll get this sweater.”
There were three kinds of presents that disappointed me on Christmas morning. When I got what I asked for, it wasn’t as amazing as it had looked on TV. When I got what I didn’t ask for, I felt deprived of the thing that I really wanted. Perhaps the most devastating of all was when I got the wrong brand or model of the thing that I’d asked for. This would disappoint me both in the present and in the future by thwarting me from making the request again because I “already had one.”
Assuming that it’s the thought that counts, how should we think about gift giving so that the thought isn’t depressing?
Though I wince at the phrase “love languages,” there is some evidence that these categories of giving can boost one’s mental well-being.
Ten Minute Exercise
1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
2. Jot down a list of names of people with whom you exchange gifts.
• For each person on your list, come up with an admirable quality you’ve observed in them and write down a few words to express your appreciation. Tell them in whatever way seems most appropriate: in person, over the phone, via text message, or online.
Since there’s no cost, you don’t have to be budget conscious with this one. You don’t have to limit it to the holidays either.
• For each person on your list, ask yourself whether there’s an act of service you could perform that would make their life easier.
Perhaps a friend could really use an evening out and needs a babysitter, or a pet sitter, a lawn mowed, or something that aligns with one of your particular skill sets.
• For each person on your list who enjoys receiving gifts, ask yourself whether an experience or a physical good would be more appropriate.
Sometimes a meal at a nice restaurant, tickets to a concert, sporting event or other cultural event can have more lasting value. Sometimes baking cookies or knitting a pair of socks (risky unless they pick out the yarn and pattern) might work.
To make this revenue neutral, find something that you’ve gotten the use out of and sell it online.
It feels good to de-clutter.
• For each person on your list, ask yourself whether they’d enjoy some good quality time with you.
Sometimes just putting away all devices and distractions and giving someone your undivided attention can be an amazing gift.
• For each person on your list, ask yourself whether they’d enjoy a nice back rub, foot massage, or cuddle.
First, this idea will seem absurd or wildly inappropriate for some people on your list, so it might make you laugh.
Second, touch can help produce the hormone oxytocin, which eases anxiety, and makes one feel connected. It can be a natural, organic antidepressant.
(If you want to give yourself this gift and are drawing blanks on who to get a hug from, you can see if there’s a professional cuddler or community cuddle event in your area.)
3. Don’t exclude yourself from this list. Self-care is important during the holidays. Ask yourself which of these ways is most appropriate for meeting your own needs. Don’t be afraid to ask for (or give yourself) what you really want.
4. When the timer sounds, allow yourself to sigh with relief or give yourself a pat on the back for finishing your gift list.