Hanson’s dad was becoming a curmudgeon and wouldn’t hesitate to complain about a gift he didn’t like. Meanwhile his mother’s excessive gift-giving was getting embarrassing. “The joy of it was fading for me,” says Hanson (not his real name), a 43-year-old photographer in Oakville, Ont. “Mom’s compulsive shopping meant everyone got too much. It was awful.”
Many people are growing increasingly frustrated with the consumerism and cost of Christmas. In last year’s popular book Scroogenomics, economist Joel Waldfogel argued that buying gifts destroys wealth and happiness, and it’s better not to give at all. He makes a strong economic argument against presents, noting that the orgy of consumer spending generates huge amounts of economic waste.
That’s undoubtedly true, but there’s a strong argument for giving gifts too—and it has nothing to do with economics. Social psychologists say that before we cut out gifts entirely, we should remember that giving is fundamental to the way humans interact—and it has been for hundreds of years. Gifts aren’t just physical objects, but a way of strengthening social ties. “Gifting opens up a line of communication between you and the gift-giver,” says Michael Norton, a professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School. “That’s important because people are so busy these days and have so few times in the course of a year to communicate with those they care about.”
It’s not just the person receiving the gift who builds up good feelings. It’s the gift-giver as well. “My studies show that people are happier when they give than when they receive,” says Norton. “The actual gift itself doesn’t matter. It can be totally inappropriate, yet for relationship building, it’s still better than no gift at all.”
So what’s the solution? Some families are trying a creative compromise. Three years ago, instead of heading to the mall, Hanson grabbed a few dozen family photos he had taken over the years—shots of his nieces fishing with their grandfather, and of Otis, the beloved family dog. On Christmas day, he spread the photos out on the dining room table and told family members to pick the ones they liked as their Christmas gift.
To his surprise, everyone loved it. His family has even developed a small auction for the photos, donating the money to an organization that gives micro loans to impoverished families. Now everyone brings photos to share. “It turns out that some simple family photos touch people more than store-bought gifts,” says Hanson. “The power of building and reliving great memories is a gift in itself. For us, that’s the true meaning of Christmas.”