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Tom Muha: Gifts won’t make you happy for long

What presents did you get for Christmas last year? If you’re like most people, you’re having difficulty remembering all the gifts that were in those pretty packages.
What presents did you get for Christmas last year? If you’re like most people, you’re having difficulty remembering all the gifts that were in those pretty packages. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

What presents did you get for Christmas last year? If you’re like most people, you’re having difficulty remembering all the gifts that were in those pretty packages. Here’s a much easier question to answer: Where were you and who were you with when you opened presents?

Experiences make people much happier than tangible objects, according to a study at San Francisco State University. Subjects were asked to write about either a certain experience or an object purchased within the last three months just to make themselves happy. The participants expressed happiness about their purchases - they were, of course, asked to write about a purchase they made for that express purpose.

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People who wrote about experiences they’d purchased, like a night out, derived significantly more satisfaction – both at the time they actually went on the activity and for months afterward.

Other studies have confirmed that experiences not only give us greater happiness, they also provide lasting happiness. The most important aspect of what works to make for a good experience was enjoying feeling connected to the people with whom they were sharing the experience.

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Buying gifts can certainly feel good – for a couple of weeks, anyway. Unfortunately, the happiness we feel from getting gifts dissipates in as little as two weeks. It’s usually completely gone in a couple of months.

When people feel insecure the more likely they are to spend money to make themselves happy. Studies show that valuing the pursuit of possessions over figuring out how to have a good time with people is directly linked to self-confidence issues and relationship troubles.

When people turn to material things to feel better, they compound their problems because they seek experiences that don't do a very good job of meeting their psychological needs. Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychology professor and happiness expert, has found that those who value attaining material possessions more than they value creating happy experiences have nearly as many negative moods as positive moods.

To feel good about your life requires that you generate at least three positive moments for every instance that makes you feel bad. And the negatives can be internally derived as well as being caused by immediate external situations.

How often do you spend worrying about what might happen in the future? How much time are you angrily ruminating over some past problems? Whenever you give negative thoughts a home in your head, you need to counterbalance with three times as many positive experiences to maintain your sense of wellbeing.

People who value pursuing happiness in their relationships over material possessions experience considerably more pleasant moods and feelings than unpleasant emotions. Materialism is a difficult problem many people, Diener says, because it is open-ended and goes on forever. We can always want more, which is usually not true of other goals such as friendship. With friends, we have them and enjoy them but usually are not feeling the insatiable desire to acquire more and more.

We’re in the midst of the holiday shopping season. Many a husband and wife are struggling to connect because they’re busy trying to buy incredible gifts rather than create an incredible relationship. Their lives have slowly been depleted by their pursuit of "nice things" - a fabulous house, fancy cars, electronic playthings. They’re often time-starved and exhausted. Their lifestyle is luxurious but simply no fun.

There's also an opportunity cost to chasing the wrong goals, said Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor who focuses on people's flawed ability to predict their emotional reactions. When people spend their effort pursuing material goods in the belief that they’ll bring happiness, they're ignoring other, more effective routes to happiness such as helping others.

So why is materialism so common? The trouble is that the error is subtle. If it were the case that money made us totally miserable, we'd figure out we were wrong to pursue it. But it's wrong in a more nuanced way.

We think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, but actually it brings a little happiness for a short time. We become bored with things. The novelty of a tangible item is finite, often times a little as two weeks. Experiences, on the other hand, aren't as fleeting. We don't tend to get bored with happy memories like we do with tangible objects.

This holiday season think about giving good experiences as your gift. What could you do with your loved ones that will bring joy for months after the holidays?

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