Happiness on Sale

Dec 5, 2022

Given the commercialization of the holiday season, it is easy to imagine big box chain employees across the country cringing in anticipation of the masses. According to a recent article published in Investor’s Business Daily, holiday shopping continues to break records annually. This year, analysts predict that more than $960 billion will be spent by Americans searching to buy happiness for someone else. For perspective, as reported by the World Bank, those dollar amounts exceed the combined annual gross domestic products of Australia and Argentina given last year’s data for those countries. In fact, the sum total of holiday spending in this country dwarfs what most other countries consume and pay out in an entire year. 

Can you even remember what you received last year for the holidays, or do all of the gifts blend into an amalgamation of fond memories?

When asked, many of us may be able to name a favorite childhood gift that stands out above the rest. For me, my most prized possession became the Nintendo 64 given to my brother and me by our parents. I probably played Mario Kart until my eyes crossed, and in fact, we still have the gaming system. A few other gifts that I received over various holiday seasons I can recall, but hardly everything. Now, I am fully aware of the immense amount of privilege that my poor memory implies, as I was raised in a family that celebrated with each other, and were fortunate to have the means to express love through gift giving. However, I remember moments much more than I recall the tangible tokens of affection.

Driving through my grandparent’s neighborhood to look at the decorations, spending time with my dad constructing some of those gifts, and watching my loved ones open their presents. Each of these memories is unforgettable, but I could not tell you what gifts I received in return. Generally speaking, all I carry with me now is the love imparted to me by my family and friends. Therein lies the beauty of receiving gifts. The offerings show us that the gift giver has fond feelings for the receiver and, when given altruistically, gifts can impart messages that we cannot express through words. Being given a gift can be an affirming experience, showing that we do have support, that we are not isolated, and we are seen and understood. Additionally, there are substantial benefits in being the giver.

Heartfelt caring can be shown through the delivery of a gift, uplifting the recipient. However, the giver is changed within and without themselves. Physiologically, giving someone a gift can increase dopamine production, a neurotransmitter in the brain largely responsible for pleasure and reward. Researchers have shown that activating the reward pathway in the brain can lower stress, improve concentration, and bolster our quality of life. This surge in pleasurable feelings is genetically driven and evolutionarily derived. Once potentiated, our reward pathways are more apt to desire additional dopamine, leading to more giving, and more pleasure. This cycle can repeat itself, strengthening familial and social bonds. With a stronger friendship, family, or society, more individuals would be in a position to give even more. Of all the harmful spirals that our human community experiences, replacing part of the despair with hope and solidarity through gift giving could not only make us happier and healthier, but a more prosperous society.

Now, think back to those holidays where you received more than you asked for. Perhaps, recall some material item that you swore was the only thing you ever wanted. Do you still have that gift? Or, do you hold dear the memory of receiving that item long after you have parted with the token? The overarching message here is painfully trite: it is the thought that counts. It cannot be said that families who do not have the discretionary income to buy everything everyone ever wanted love each other less than wealthier families. Surely, all could benefit from reduced stress and a healthier well-being, regardless of socioeconomic status. Which brings us to the opportunity that anyone can take to give back to others in the community: volunteering. Whether you have ample funding does not have much of a bearing on your ability to volunteer your assistance to those in need. Perhaps volunteering would be even more impactful if you do have the means to purchase anything that your heart desires. Irrespective of money, volunteering can provide for better mental health, lifelong friends, and an entire catalog of warm memories. Finding the charity, cause, or person that provides the beneficial flood of dopamine could also provide a more meaningful, expanded giving and receiving cycle.

Service to others offers the same mental and physical health benefits as gifting a tangible object. Further, acts of service help bind social connections and can provide a sense of community and accomplishment. According to the Mayo Clinic, giving back time and care can have benefits beyond a rush of dopamine. Through the course of volunteering, you not only strengthen your health and bolster the community, giving back offers the chance to make new friends and network in search of a stronger support system. Volunteering your time and energy can look however you see fit, and is even an excellent way for you to avoid isolation and its potential pitfalls. Isolation provides no dopamine, no connection, and brings with it a detrimental impact on an individual’s well-being.

Given a pandemic, inflation, and price increases on all kinds of goods, Americans seem poised to break more records regarding holiday spending. However, it is arguable whether these great expenditures are entirely necessary. Spending time with family and friends can provide much more enduring memories that most gifts cannot surpass. Now, I am no Scrooge, as gift giving is my love language, too. But at what point does materialism trump the caring nature meant to be expressed through the perfect gift? It is a distinct possibility that you could activate that reward system, that flow of dopamine, without emptying your wallet. Further, you may be able to avoid guilt or shame in not being able to afford extravagance, but still experience the gift of giving through volunteering. As stated, the memories created during these times are often what we hold on to the longest. Lastly, volunteering is a continual opportunity to receive and give benefits of health and well-being, and you can explore the hyperlink to see where, when, and how you can give back. This year, would you consider buying fewer gifts and, instead, giving some of your time and attention to others by volunteering? It does not need to be some monumental gesture, charitable achievement, or expensive gift; just memorable.

Make the holidays even more memorable by connecting with the right support for your personal health and wellbeing goals.  Click HERE to learn about all of the Wellview Services available to you today. We look forward to supporting you.

– Richard DeBord

M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)

Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard

We’re changing the way people engage with healthcare.

Request a Demo