Recalculating Christmas

It’s a good year to balance the whole give-get equation

The other day, in our neighborhood of bedecked and depreciating houses, we passed a dinged-up Jeep Cherokee with a bumper sticker: “Want Less.”

“That Jeep’s not from Orange County,” I joked to my husband. Still, talk about indicators. There was a time when it seemed the only bumper stickers allowed in these parts were the ones about dying with the most toys and your other car being a Mercedes. As recently as a couple of years ago, the kid up the street was roaring around in a new SUV, her eyes hidden behind big Chanel sunglasses. “I’m Chuck Bass,” her bumper sticker said.

This year, though, nobody’s pretending to be a “Gossip Girl” trust-fund baby. Consumerism is beyond passé. I wandered into a high-end retailer recently and the place was so empty, the clerk’s sad little “May I help you?” echoed off the polished walkways like the cry of an endangered species. One of our kid’s friends is selling vegetables from her mother’s garden to help pay for her Christmas. There’s a Yahoo! group here called FreeOC where locals give away used furniture and clothes and other surplus belongings; the traffic there lately has been insane.

Not everyone sees that as a plus this holiday season. Wanting more, after all, has been our way of life. Less consumerism means less commerce and, thus, less employment. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, we’re discovering a lot about what less money can buy.

For instance: According to the latest scholarly studies, conspicuous consumption makes us less happy than spending on experiences that forge emotional ties. Why? Because, according to a paper coauthored by psychologists at the University of British Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, experiences allow us to interact with one of our greatest sources of happiness—other humans—while forestalling one of our least appreciated sources of unhappiness: a wandering mind.

Also, it really is better to give than receive, as it turns out. In study after study, people who donate to others are happier, regardless of their incomes. In one experiment, the joy of giving even showed up on MRIs.

And while money can buy a certain amount of happiness, the returns diminish at a surprisingly low threshold. A Princeton economist poring over the most recent Gallup research found that once you hit about $75,000 or so of annual household income (let’s assume a little more in high-priced Orange County), more money has little effect on day-to-day contentment. In fact, some economists contend that our definition of “money’s worth” would look dramatically different if we were to stop ignoring, say, the health benefits of strong community connections, or the mounting costs of environmental degradation.

“We’ve tended to define wealth just in financial terms,” says Juliet Schor, a Boston College professor and author of “Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth,” a new book about post-recession consumption. “But some of our most important forms of wealth are not monetized.”

At some level, we probably realize these things already. Marketing consultants say consumers have been less interested in luxury and status for a while, and more into home and family.

But for me it all adds an extra perspective to this season: Maybe that Christmas Day stroll down the block last year was a better present to each other than my husband and I realized. Maybe that factory-farmed turkey and French Champagne aren’t such treats when you factor in their carbon footprints. Maybe the pleasure of donating to the food bank will show up in my brain waves. Maybe it’s time to let our holiday balance sheet include gifts that are priceless.

Which probably sounds like a bumper sticker. But maybe less is more this holiday season. Blessings count. Want differently.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

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