Contrary to what some might think, a majority of skeptics celebrate winter holidays. December is the time of year when we join millions of others in an odd mixture of anticipation and angst, joy and judgment, happiness and headaches.
Luckily, there’s a science to enjoying the holidays. Hundreds of studies have been published on some of the key components (and the main sources of the stress) of this time of year, many of which can provide us with tips not just for surviving the holidays, but for actually enhancing our enjoyment of them. In offering my advice as a social scientist, I would like to suggest concentrating on following the science available regarding three main elements of the holiday season: 1. Holiday gift giving, 2. Holiday spending, and 3. Holiday food.
Holiday Gift Giving
One of the most important, and stressful, parts of the holiday season is the tradition of gift giving. Beginning about mid-October, stores overwhelm us with messages about holiday gift giving, increasing the pressure of choosing the perfect gift for each important person in our lives. Before you begin shopping, however, it might benefit you to know a few things about the psychological experience of these tokens of affection.
One of the most consistent messages about gift giving is that there is a strong gender difference in both the giving and receiving of gifts. For most men, the selection of a gift is a practical decision. Men tend to ask themselves what recipients might need, as opposed to what they might want. Research like that by Murray, Holmes, Bellavia, Griffin, and Dolderman (2002), for instance, shows that men not only use this strategy in purchasing gifts, but also in their evaluation of any gifts given to them. Women, on the other hand, tend to experience gifts as signs of closeness and compatibility. For them, rather than sending the message “You need this,” their gifts are intended to say, “I know you.” And when men give women gifts that do not represent knowledge of their likes and/or style, women tend to interpret it as a sign incompatibility. This may also partly explain why women report more holiday stress than men, especially since, as numerous studies have verified, women are saddled with most of the holiday duties such as shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and entertaining (Kasser & Sheldon, 2002; Fischer & Arnold, 1990; Caplow, 1982). Keeping these gender differences in mind as we do our holiday shopping can help us make purchases that are more in line with the meaning we’d like to convey, and can also assist us in interpreting the gifts we receive in a more rational manner.
One of the best messages to come out of recent research on gift giving is that money is not the most important factor in successful gift giving. As it turns out, engaging in environmentally friendly practices during the holidays is correlated with reports of greater satisfaction than the amount spent. In our pursuit of a joyous holiday season, we create a massive amount of trash; one estimate by Lilienfield (2002) is that 5 million extra tons of trash is generated between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the U.S. alone. I find it quite satisfying, therefore, that Kasser and Sheldon (2012) reported satisfaction rates during the holidays correlated most strongly with environmentally friendly gift giving; things such as buying a live tree to replant, giving charitable donations as presents, giving environmentally friendly presents, giving presents that one created, giving presents of one’s time, and using alternatives to wrapping paper strongly correlated with high levels of holiday season happiness. These are not only socially responsible alternatives to the lavish gifts we are sometimes tempted to buy, but can also be more financially sensible alternatives.
As adults, our biggest concern during the holiday season is often how much we can afford to spend. Millions of Americans go into serious debt during the holidays, and find themselves spending the rest of the year paying off credit cards and accruing interest on items that recipients have quickly forgotten they’ve even received. This is due to a number of factors, but one of the most prevalent is our belief that we can buy happiness. Fortunately, science has shown that this isn’t the case. As it turns out, the amount of money spent on a gift does not correlate strongly with people’s happiness in receiving it. In one study, the researchers summed up this finding thusly, “Neither spending a relatively large percentage of one’s income, nor going into substantial debt, related to having a merrier Christmas” (Kasser & Sheldon, 2012, p. 322). Although this may seem counterintuitive at first, studies show that the positive effect of receiving a gift is based far more upon how much thought seems to have one into its selection, as opposed to its monetary value. In fact, Kasser and Sheldon (2012) found that receiving an expensive gift actually correlated moderately with negative feelings.
Another mistake we make in gift purchasing regards our desire for immediate gratification. Most Americans buy on credit during the holidays, enjoying their purchases now and paying for them later. Retailers entice us to give in to this temptation with offers of low financing, and assurances that they honor all major credit cards. Interestingly, research on the relationship between happiness and spending shows that we’ve got this backward. Purchasers are actually far happier when they pay for things up front that can’t be enjoyed until later. Buying a weekend vacation, for instance, that was planned for later in the Spring, or purchasing a gift certificate for a day spa, or anything that allows the user to plan for and look forward to the experience increases happiness significantly (Dunn & Norton, 2013). It seems that there’s something about the anticipation of, and looking forward to, enjoying a gift that increases the pleasure we experience from it.
One clever web site even allows you to choose the socially responsible option of giving your friends the opportunity to donate to a charity as your present. Through DonorsChoose.org, users can purchase a gift card that allows the recipient to spend money on someone else, rather than keep it her- or himself. In fact, you can even search by ZIP code to find a local school science teacher who needs money to buy a new microscope for her students, a community art program that needs supplies, etc., enhancing the experience by ensuring that the gift benefits her own community and neighbors.
Although our children tend to fixate upon gifts and candies, for adults the anticipation is all about food at the holidays. This pleasant aspect of the season can be a source of stress, however, if you’re hosting, especially if it’s for the first time. And for those of us with limited culinary skills, the experience can be downright intimidating. Thankfully, research on eating shows that the experience of food is really more about psychology than money or even quality.
As Brian Wansink has shown in numerous studies, there’s no need to spend an exorbitant amount of money on food at the holidays. His research shows that our experiences with food are, in large part, influenced by psychological phenomena such as the Halo Effect. Wansink’s research shows that even mediocre food can be “dressed up” such that it not only looks better, but even tastes better. As an example of this presentation-is-everything approach, Wansink presented students with a brownie that was past its prime, served on a paper plate with a paper napkin, and asked how much they’d be willing to spend on it. The average was only 57 cents. But, those same brownies with a sprinkle of powdered sugar on top, presented on a ceramic plate with a cloth napkin suddenly shot to nearly double the value ($1.12 on average). Subjects also reported that the dressed-up brownies actually tasted better. The same is true for wine presented in a bottle with an impressive label, and meat or side dishes garnished with a sprig of parsley or an artistic drizzle of sauce. In the end, taking care with the presentation is far more important than spending money on expensive ingredients.
Wansink also reports that props in the kitchen are important to creating the perfect culinary experience for your guests. One of the easiest ways to create the Halo Effect in the food preparation area is to leave bunches of flat-leaved parsley or chervil laying out in the kitchen where guests might see them, even if you never use the stuff while cooking. Also, if you have any complicated kitchen equipment and/or obscure-looking utensils, leave them laying about with bits of food on them. All of this creates the impression that your cooking is involved, time-consuming work, even if it’s not, and actually enhances the eating experience for your guests.
Moreover, food experts tell us that there are two types of successful cooking. One is done by the “creative” chef, someone who mixes ingenuity with a working knowledge of food preparation to produce a unique masterpiece. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be faked; you either have what it takes to serve a bacon-wrapped turkey with mini-tacos inside it, or you don’t. The good news is that, a second type of successful cooking involves relying upon the standards and doing them well. These are known as “Social Occasion Cooks,” and they stick to tried-and-true recipes, allowing the guests and conversation to be the center of attention. Oddly, these folks are often described by others as “good cooks,” even though their food is only so-so. That’s because, if guests enjoy themselves during the social aspects of the gathering,
Although no holiday is completely without stress or worry, following the science on these basic elements of the celebration can make it easier to bear, and if you’re lucky, bring a bit more joy to the season for everyone.
Sheldon W. Helms is an associate professor of psychology at Ohlone College in Fremont, CA. He has taught psychology for more than 16 years, and teaches a wide range of topics including Abnormal Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Social Psychology, and Human Sexuality. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Bay Area Skeptics and is the founder of the Ohlone Psychology Club Speaker Series, through which he regularly hosts top name speakers in science and skepticism.
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