Get More this Christmas by Giving Less

The holiday season is officially upon us. We can’t deny it any longer.

For some people, this stirs up feelings of stress and anxiety.

The pressure is on to get the shopping done, put up the tree, hang the lights, decorate the house, prepare baking, wrap the presents, send out cards, attend work parties, visit the in-laws, keep the kids entertained, shovel the driveway, make the perfect dinner, travel, and, oh yes, if there’s any time left over, actually enjoy the season!

On top of this, there’s the financial pressure. Christmas is, after all, probably one of the most materialistic holidays on the face of the planet.

Nowadays, it seems like more is better. People expect big-ticket items under the tree including the latest phones, tablets, watches, jewelry, designer clothes, trips, or even keys to a brand new car. It seems like every year, we have to “top” the gifts that we gave and received last year. We’re always having to outdo ourselves and impress everyone else.

But, have you ever stopped and asked yourself if getting and giving so much stuff is truly making everyone happier?

Some years ago, when a previous boyfriend and I celebrated our first Christmas together, I remember asking him what he was getting for his parents. When he responded that he was getting his dad “a book,” and his mom, “maybe a pair of gloves,” I waited for him to go on….

“Are you getting anything to go with the book and the gloves?” I asked.

“No.” He said. “Why would I need something to go with them? The book and gloves are the gifts.”

It might be worth noting that this boyfriend was from Europe, so a part of me believes that it’s a “cultural thing” (being from North America, a favourite pastime of mine is idealizing the mysterious ways of the Europeans, although, I’ve talked to some who believe that even Scandinavia is jumping on the “American” bandwagon of “more is better”). So, maybe it is that his family was more traditional, but it really made me stop and think…

“Boy, Christmas sure would be a lot less stressful and much more economical if we all shopped like this,” I said.

It turns out, it might make us a lot happier, too.

A few fun facts:

  • Materialists are less happy than non-materialists because they aren’t able to show gratitude for what they already have. Each time they make a new purchase, they raise the bar and desire the next best thing (Tsang et al., 2014)
  • People who win the lottery show short-term increases in happiness, but these increases aren’t nearly as high as expected, and their happiness falls to baseline not long afterwards (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978)
  • People experience greater satisfaction from having experiences than from getting “things.” Long-term enjoyment can be maintained long after experiences are over (via reminiscing about them- like posting photos on Facebook), whereas enjoyment obtained from “things” quickly wears off (Van-Boven & Gilovich, 2003)
  • People report greater levels of happier after spending money on others than on themselves, even though they predict that spending on themselves will make them happier. This holds true whether spending $5 or $20 (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2013)

With this being said, here are a few things you can do to get more this Christmas:

  1. Agree to give/spend less. This is very important so no one’s left feeling gypped! Make sure your family mutually decides to give only one item per person this year, or to set a budget of, say, $40 per person.
  2. Include only items that you’ve wanted for at least one month on your wish list. This will help you exclude things that they want just for the sake of it, and will leave everyone feeling more appreciative come Christmas morning.
  3. Have a “shoebox” Christmas. Buy only gifts that can fit in a shoebox! This will help eliminate “big” items, which often happen to be a lot more expensive (think books, CDs & scarves, vs. PlayStations, laptops & snowboards).
  4. Make your own wrapping paper/gift bags. Knowing the work you’re going to put into each gift might be motivation enough to cut down on what you buy.
  5. Keep a “gradvent” (gratitude+advent) calendar. Instead of eating a chocolate every day for the month of December (okay, well you can do this, too!), try writing down 3 things you’re grateful for. This will help curb your desire for more things, because you’ll feel more satisfied with what you already have.
  6. Give and wish for “experiences.” As we learned earlier, gifting a massage or an indoor winter picnic will stay with you and your receiver far longer than getting the latest iPhone.
  7. If you receive a money gift, spend (at least part of it) on someone else. Give it to your favourite charity. Buy a homeless person a hot meal. Watch your satisfaction soar by increasing someone else’s happiness 🙂


Brickman P., Coates, D. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B. & Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays off. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 347-355.

Tsang, J., Carpenter, T. P., Roberts, J. A., Frisch, M. B. & Carlisle, R. D. (2014). Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 62-66.

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202.


Editor’s note: For meaningful and environmentally-friendly gift ideas, take a quick look at this post, here.

Counseling, stress


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