The Holidays are all about giving, especially about material giving. It's a time when credit cards get stretched, and when we worry about running out of money. And let's not forget the stress about finding the right gift for someone.
Psychologically presents are the easiest way to show gratitude and appreciation for loved ones. We don't appreciate each other enough, and by all means, Holiday gifting is good for that reason alone. Furthermore, it's not only important to show appreciation, but to be appreciated as well. It's a good feeling to be rewarded. The best experience is when the giver and the receiver exchange their gratitude equally. The giver states implicitly: "I want you to feel appreciated". The receiver states implicitly: "Thank you for giving all that appreciation". In that sense, both are giving feelings to the other.
Most of our buying and giving behavior is driven by our reward system. It's fueled by a cocktail of brain hormones and neurotransmitters that gives us a pleasure when we offer servitude and thanks to others. These good feelings are important to have, especially in the dark days of December. There are two things to remember about gratification that comes with gifts:
The brain chemical that gives us the rewarding feeling is dopamine and it is addictive. Dopamine plays a major role in common reward driven addictions like comfort food and gambling. The instant gratification that comes from buying can be addictive as well and in some extreme cases it can get to the level of hoarding. Be careful not to get caught up in a buying spree.
The dopamine rush is short lived. The new car is not new anymore after a few weeks; the bargain ring purchased from the Home Shopping Network will disappear in the jewel box and will soon be forgotten. The reason is that material objects are far less important than relationships and feelings. Not so long ago, when we were apes, the personal satisfaction that we found in a banana was far less important for survival than to understand our place in the community. The banana will be long gone when you still have to deal with your brother. Not much has changed since we started walking upright.
Objects are to be consumed. Consumption is a sensual experience, and the intensity of the experience is linear to the extent the material objects change our lives. One’s first car is more of a memorable experience than any new car. A full diaper is more of an experience than buying 100 new ones. The self knit sweater has more value, even for the recipient, than the Alpaca vest from the Fair Trade shop.
When we understand that the value of a gift lies in the intensity of the experience, than we don't need to necessarily give material things anymore. Here are 5 ideas for non-material Holiday gifts that will have a high memorable experience.
1. Massage gift certificate. Touch is so important to make that connection with the other human being. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is released by looking someone in the eye, by touching someone, even shaking a hand. Noticeable quantities of oxytocin are released by rubbing someone’s back. The gift can either be in the form of a gift certificate for a professional massage, or better from yourself. Nothing is better than that personal bonding touch.
2. Families and friends support each other and in the process accumulate unintentional bad feelings or karma. Sibling rivalries are one example. Spousal quarrels are another. The end of the year is a good occasion to eliminate as much of that baggage as possible. One easy ,and controlled, way to do this is in ritualized form. Ritual means that everybody joins in and that there is a symbolic process that everyone goes through. People like rituals this time of the year (from going to mass, to having a company Holiday party, to drinking champagne on New Year's eve). The bad karma burning ritual is very simple: Every participant writes their past year's worst feelings on a small piece of paper. No need to go into details, no need to spend more than 2 minutes to write them down, because it's not going to be published. Go outside with a metal bucket or pan and a lighter. Get a small fire going. Have everyone join in a circle, and one after the other throw in your bad karma. No need to say more than a dozen words of what is being burned. Or just say "I love you all".
3. Parents always cook for kids. Turn the tables and have the kids cook for you. Give the children 100% control. It will be a bigger gift to them (experience wise) than it is for the grownups. Allow them to make you feel proud.
4. Buy a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. It's not about the value of the puzzle, but about the family experience of working together and completing it.
5. Go on a shopping spree at the local thrift store. Make it a family "shopping" experience by giving everyone the name of a recipient, a budget, and the task to find the silliest object in the store for that family member or friend. Again, it's not about value, but about the experience of finding something personal and outrageous. I guarantee you that the dopamine level will be the same as when spending a fortune at Nordstrom. Wrap the items fanciful for gifting on Christmas day. Collectively drop the items off at the thrift store on January 1st. That return should be part of the experience as well.