Giving Happiness That Lasts, Rather Than Things That Take Up Space

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It's the quintessential holiday gift problem: there's someone on the list who you just can't think of a good gift for.

While you can certainly plumb the depths of their Amazon Wish List for ideas, or maybe settle on a gift card, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn suggests the way we think about spending money on ourselves and others might be completely wrong.

"Tons of research has focused on the relationship between how much money we have and how happy we are," Dunn told "To the Best of Our Knowledge." "But we wanted to examine whether maybe people could use their money differently to get more happiness from their money, whether they had a little or a lot of it."

In this context, the best gift we can give anyone, including ourselves, is something that gives us greater happiness.

In her book "Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending," Dunn has specific suggestions for reframing how we spend money, rather than what we spend it on. And through her exercises, you might come up with gift ideas that are not only more thoughtful but also more apt to improve the life of the person you're giving them to, instead of it ending up in the return bin on Dec. 26.

These transcript excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

1. Experiences, not things, are more likely to make lasting memories and feelings of happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn: For example, people get more lasting happiness from things like vacations, special meals, concerts than from couches, televisions. Things that stick around, ironically, don't actually provide us lasting happiness.

Experiences tend to be particularly rewarding when they bring us closer to other people.

For example, I just got back from a surfing trip with my husband and we brought along our 9-month-old baby, our nanny, and some of our friends. It was just such a great opportunity to be out there in the surf with my husband and my friends, especially being a busy working mother, getting the chance to reconnect with those people who are important to me. I think it delivered a kind of happiness boost that doing a similar trip solo simply couldn't.

2. Everything exists on a continuum between experiences and things. It depends on the person and how they like to spend their time.

ED: So for example a sofa is clearly a material thing. A trip to Paris is clearly an experience. But what about the new wetsuit that I bought this weekend? It's a material thing, but what it allows me to do is stay in the freezing cold Canadian water surfing.

It turns out that if you can actually think about a material thing in terms of the experiences that it provides, you're more likely to get lasting happiness from that thing.

3. Sometimes, the best experience you can buy is one that has you spending more of your time on what you enjoy.

ED: So for example, buying that apartment closer to work? That's going to change the way that you spend your time because you're not going to be spending two hours a day commuting. But many of the products that we buy — a new dress from Kate Spade, for example — (you have to) ask, "OK, is this actually going to change the way I spend my time?" And the answer is probably not.

I would argue that if a product isn't going to have a positive impact on the way we spend our time, it might not be worthwhile.

4. A good gift relieves people of doing what they hate, and giving them time to spend on something fun, relaxing or enlightening.

ED: Personally, I think that house cleaning services are a great use of money. My husband likes to say that although our tiny little kitchen could fit on a ship, it takes me like 45 minutes to clean it. And so for me, hiring a house cleaner is actually a good use of money.

But here are people who enjoy cleaning — now this is totally foreign to me, but for them I wouldn't recommend paying for a house cleaner because the time that they spend cleaning is almost like meditation for them.

The overall principle that is supported by science is that we should use our money to improve the way we spend our time. The nature of that improvement is of course idiosyncratic — it depends on people's own particular preferences.

5. How do you know whether a gift for yourself or a loved one will give the gift of time? Apply 'The Tuesday Test.'

ED: The question is, "How will this purchase change the way I spend my time next Tuesday?" This turns out to de-bias our predictions about how much something will impact our happiness.

When we talk about buying a pool, for example, we're likely imagining that once-a-summer pool party where we gather the whole extended family and have a wonderful barbecue and make margaritas and it's all wonderful. And what we forget is that on the typical Tuesday, what we're going to be doing is rushing home from work to clean the pool. We're not actually going to have time to swim in it.

Thinking about what our time is actually on a typical average day can be very helpful in weeding out those purchases that might have little impact — or even a negative impact — on our happiness.

6. Why does this mindset toward spending and gifts affect our overall happiness?

It has to do with the connection between "time affluence" — the feeling of having plenty of time, or not enough time — and happiness. And one way to feel more "time rich" is to have time to spare. And more importantly, time to give to others.

ED: The more valuable our time seems, the scarcer it actually feels. So when we give it away by volunteering to help somebody, that can actually make us feel more time affluent.

Some companies are beginning to provide their employees with the opportunity to engage in volunteer work, both during the work day and on employees' own time. And this actually seems to be remarkably effective in terms of promoting employees' well-being.

We think of humans as being relatively selfish creatures and that's not untrue. But we do have a more selfless side as well. And I think it's possible to really harness the emotional benefits that we get from giving to others.