Sunday, January 1, 2012

More on Christmas (and other) gifts

I have already ranted once about how gifts, done in the sloppy way we do them, reduce the happiness in the world, and encourage over-consumption - often on credit - as people feel socially, emotionally or morally obliged to purchase presents devoid of real meaning. It is nicely captured in the News Thump article "sale of 'any old shit' expected to treble as men start Christmas shopping". I think this goes for other occasions too and, in general, economists hate gifts (HT: MCO) because of their happiness-reducing quality.

There is always the argument that it is the 'thought that counts'. I would argue that the thought is worth considerably less when it is a habit (like at Christmas or birthday) and, in any case, I have probably received at least as many presents that show that someone hasn't listened or doesn't know me as well as they should, as nicer ones. 

So how did presents I received fair? Well, I probably received some presents that not only reduced happiness for humanity (as I value them less that the cost) but that actually reduced my own happiness all told. I received, for example, some tea. Which is nice. Only, I had to bring it back to America with me. It's all very civilised on this side of the pond these days; I can even get Twinings here. So my total package was tea plus extra stuff to carry with me. I dislike carrying lots of stuff whilst travelling, and I'd say there was a net loss to my happiness there. That is pretty impressive as, on an emotional basis, you have to wonder who was giving whom the gift in that case. I received a shirt. Also nice. A Marks and Spencer shirt at that. And as we all know, you don't get better than M&S in the shirt domain. Only, I noticed at some point, it was not the kind of M&S shirt I wear. I wear the amazing 2" longer M&S shirts ('for the gentleman of length' - my slogan, not theirs, but if anyone from M&S is reading, you can have it in exchange for a lifetime supply of them :)  )

In the end, my favourite presents were from people who didn't give me any presents, resulting in a net gain in happiness for the world. I reckon the only time you will increase happiness from giving is if you give occasionally, unexpectedly and being pretty sure the receiver will be happy with both the gift and the emotions behind the gift. 

As a post-script, I might rant about what effect xmas is having on kids with all these presents. I saw a lot of children over these holidays and I can't help wondering if we are storing up an even bigger credit-driven consumption boom in the future. Need to read up on that one but some of the signs seem worrying to me...

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