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How to Give Yourself a Holiday Gift That Brings Joy

Yes, money can buy happiness.

Key points

  • Research shows that people become more rapidly accustomed to new objects than they do to pleasant memories.
  • The act of gifting has been associated with increased satisfaction.
  • To the extent that wealth can preserve health, it is money well spent.

Tis' the season to be jolly. Or so the song goes, at least—but is it folly?

Indeed, the holiday season can be depressing for some and downright unhealthy for others. Even in affluent areas, abundant resources do not necessarily make for abundant joy. Of course, it’s a common sentiment that happiness isn’t for sale and that money can buy things, but not contentment.

But I’d wager that this is actually not true; numerous studies into human happiness suggest that money can indeed make us happy, but only if we know how to use it correctly. And, unfortunately, most people do not. Why is this?

Well, there are many reasons, but perhaps the most critical is that the human brain is not very good at predicting what will make it happy in the future. So, to offer some joy attainment assistance, I will borrow from a fascinating paper by Dunn and colleagues from the Journal of Consumer Psychology and from some other excellent literature on the topic. [1] And perhaps this holiday season, you will be the first person on the block to buy your own sack of joy.

On the first day of Christmas, my net wealth bought for me…

Some Fruit From the Memory Tree

Research shows that people become more rapidly accustomed to new objects than they do to pleasant memories. For example, that contemporary granite countertop looks great for a few days but quickly becomes integrated into the daily experience, whereas the memories from the Colorado River rafting trip last a long time. Of course, some goods, like a mountain bike, can be very helpful in providing enriching memories.

On the second day of Christmas, my net wealth bought for me…

2 Gifts for My Loves

If you can't travel, another option is to spend money on others. The act of gifting has been associated with increased satisfaction.

For example, Dunn notes a Canadian study where individuals on a college campus were handed either a $5 or $20 bill and randomly asked to either, over the course of the day, spend the money on themselves or others. When participants were later surveyed, those who had spent their windfall on others reported greater happiness than those who had spent it on themselves.

On the third day…

3 New Friends

The majority of people automatically exercise what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” which is the tendency to adapt to positive situations—such as getting a new promotion or winning the lottery—and rather rapidly return to a baseline level of happiness. However, an exception to this hedonic adaptation rule may be found in relationships.

Humans are communal creatures and have a strong impulse to seek in-group commonality. To the extent that resources can allow us to make and keep new friends, wealth is much better spent on relationships than on creating more wealth.

And so on…

4 More Ways to Follow the Herds

This may be anathema to the rebel-minded among you, but research suggests that the best way to predict whether you will like something (a book, movie, restaurant, vehicle, etc.) is whether other people like it. So, when it comes to matters of entertainment and comfort, following the herd (while boring) may lead to greater satisfaction.

5 Golden Rings!

We’ll leave this one be.

6 Plans in Laying

My mother often says, “The fun is in the planning.” And for many of us, this is true.

Although we have a hard time predicting what will actually make us happy in the moment, we are pretty good at predicting pleasant anticipation. So, rather than purchase a massive TV at Costco and be shocked by the credit card bill later, perhaps book a vacation to the islands months in advance and then wallow in the lovely glow of expectation.

7 Fewer Ways of Shopping

Comparison shopping may not make us comparatively much happier. In fact, when presented with too many options, the brain can not only get stressed and unhappy, but it can also make a choice (like buying more house than one can really afford) that leads to much more unhappiness down the road. So, whenever you can, cut out the decision fatigue.

8 Means of De-Cluttering

Use your money to limit daily annoyances and de-clutter rather than add stuff that creates headaches. Researchers have shown that minor moments of unhappiness over the course of the day are better predictors of contentment (and lack thereof) than an overall assortment of assets or things. This holiday season, consider giving your loved one the ultimate de-cluttering tool: a dumpster.

9 Nice Little Pleasantries

A basketball coach once told me “Go big or go home.” But, when it comes to the pleasures in life—food, drink, relaxation—smaller is better if it allows for greater frequency.

This gets back to hedonic adaptation—we quickly adapt to the pleasure of eating a large piece of cake in one sitting whereas spreading out the consumption over the course of the day will give us numerous little dopamine squirts of joy.

10 Doctors A-Waiting

Good health is good for the psyche and preventive care is good for preserving health. So, to the extent that wealth can preserve health, it is money well spent.

11 Premiums A-Plopping

Much as we tend to adapt quickly to favorable situations, we humans also become accustomed to negative situations. This so-called “psychological immunity” has its basis not only in numerous anecdotes (folks who “carry on” despite illness or loss) but also in numerous experiments on the expected and actual effects of gains, losses, and ownership.

Psychologist Dan Ariely demonstrated this with an experiment involving 100 Duke University basketball fans who’d entered a lottery for Final Four tickets. After the lottery results, Ariely asked those who received tickets and those who had not to assess their value. Those individuals who obtained tickets via lottery put a far greater monetary value on them than those who had lost out—by an order of over 10 times. [2]

The lesson here: We tend to overvalue what we own—so don’t let a “valued” possession or position hold you back from activities that may lead to greater happiness.

12 Drummers Drumming

Everyone could use 12 drummers. Peace and quiet are overrated. Just ask my children.


1] Dunn, Elizabeth W., Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson. "If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right." Journal of Consumer Psychology 21.2 (2011): 115-125.

2] Ariely, Dan, and Simon Jones. Predictably irrational. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.