This time of year, it's easy to get caught up in searching for "the perfect gift". Will mum like the cashmere scarf in robin's egg blue or canary yellow? Or does she already have too many scarves as it is? Your quest isn't just about buying stuff; it's about feeling satisfied with what you've given everyone without breaking the bank.
There are numerous studies supporting the idea that spending money on other people makes you happy, so if you're giving gifts this year, you're already on your way to feeling happier. Beyond the basic advice that giving is good for you, though, recent research on the science of happiness has some interesting, and sometimes counterintuitive, suggestions to help you manage your stress around gift giving.
Buy Experiences, Not Things
At Happify, a website dedicated to building skills for lasting happiness, one of the most popular giving activities challenges people to spend money on a meaningful experience with loved ones. Why? The truth is, people adapt to things. The new gadget that was so exciting last year becomes part of everyday life by the time the next year rolls around -- and some new gadget has come along.
Experiences, on the other hand, like salsa-dancing lessons, concert tickets, or a sporting event, last longer. First of all, they strengthen your relationships, which research shows is beneficial in many ways: Doing new things together keeps relationships fresh, which is why we don't adapt to our close relationships the same way we adapt to the latest model of smartphone.
Best of all, shared experiences can be remembered and savoured after the fact; you and your loved ones can relive the best moments for years to come. Buying experiences makes your money last… literally.
Gift Cards Aren't All Bad
If you're like many people, you feel just a tiny bit guilty when you give someone a gift card. Gift cards, while handy, have a way of feeling impersonal to both the giver and the recipient. ("Oh, wow, a gift card. Thanks, sis!")
However, one study by Lara Aknin and colleagues found benefit in a cool twist on this popular gift: The key is to actually go with the recipient as they choose and purchase something for themselves. You don't have to risk getting them something they won't want, so it's ideal for them, and you get to see them enjoy whatever they get, so it's ideal for you, too. In other words, all of the benefit of getting a great gift without any of the stress or uncertainty!
Don't Buy Yourself Stuff
It's tempting to take advantage of hot holiday deals to buy something for yourself. Research backs up that this temptation exists -- it seems to be somewhat universal -- but it also says we should try our hardest not to give in to it. In a study by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues, people tended to believe that they would get more enjoyment out of spending money on themselves than they would from spending money on others.
However, they were wrong! When they actually faced the choice to spend money on themselves versus others, people who spent on others reported feeling happier than the people who spent on themselves.
Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better
In the same study I just described, people also predicted that spending more money would lead to more enjoyment than would spending a smaller amount of money. This, too, was untrue when they actually spent the money. It didn't matter if they spent $5 or $20 -- the amount of satisfaction they felt was the same. So if you have a choice, get more small presents for a larger number of people (the more the merrier!) and you'll get more happiness bang for your buck, too.
Regifting Isn't As Rude As You Think
When gift recipients are asked to predict how a gift-giver would react if they were to re- gift something, they say that regifting is pretty offensive. In fact, a study by Gabrielle Adams and colleagues found that people think it's just as bad to regift as it would be to throw the gift away! However, if you ask the gift-givers themselves, they are significantly less offended by the idea of regifting than their recipients predicted they would be. They're also much less offended at the prospect of regifting something than they are of throwing it away.
It makes sense when you think about it. If you spend money on something, and you thought it was cool enough to buy, isn't it better for the gift to be loved by someone than cast aside by the person you bought it for? So don't sweat regifting too much -- your gift-giver won't (at least as not as much as you think!).
Remember That It's Not Just About Buying Stuff -- It's About Savouring the Season
It's easy to get caught up in the gifts and lose sight of the fact that the holidays aren't about the stuff -- they're about the people. Yes, both you (and your lucky gift recipients) will be happier with experiences over things, with more small gifts than with one big one, and with chances to spend a gift card together.
But even if you can't afford to spend much money at all this year, rest assured in a final lesson from happiness science -- which is that spending time savouring happy experiences with loved ones (like your Uncle Todd's holiday potluck or New Year's Eve cocktails with your best friends) leads to just as powerful of a happiness boost for everyone involved.
Acacia Parks, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Psychology at Hiram College and scientific advisor at Happify, a startup that uses fun, science-based activities and games to increase happiness and create life-changing habits. Follow Happify on Twitter and Facebook.