Saturday, January 19, 2013

I only got nine presents.

During the holiday season, it's exciting to anticipate presents, fun to pick them out for others, but the most important factor is who you share your time with.
Anticipation is part of the fun. Flipping through the wishbook, writing letters to Santa, and enduring TV commercials that overstate the joy you can get from a given toy are all part of the economy that revolves around stoking our desire for things we don't have.
Revelling in the not knowing demonstrates how we enjoy the infinite possibilities. Schrödinger's present (where it could be anything until you look inside) fills you with anticipation and wonder.
Knowing it could be anything dwells on the tremendous upside of what's possible rather than the limitations of any one thing. Is it better to open the box and limit the infinite possibilities to one thing, or to leave it closed preserving the dream but never living the reality?
Picking out gifts for others is fun too. The Potlach, a native giving custom raising the status of those who redistribute the most resources (rather than collecting the most resources) flies in the face of our accumulating society.
Economists criticize gift giving because it doesn't optimize the resources. Other people don't know exactly what you need/want, so they do their best. Their best isn't as good as what you'd come up with for yourself, so the utility of the gift is rarely maximized. On the other hand, giving cash is seen as a thoughtless cop-out, though it would help to maximize the utility and keep the economists happy.
The utility of the gift is only part of the story. The rest has to do with the reciprocal, relationship building nature of gift giving, the thought you put into your presents, and the opportunity to be generous. Reciprocal gift giving is one way to strengthen a relationship.
Between the delight of anticipating and receiving something wonderful and the satisfaction of seeing it received there's a third benefit too, more important than passing around stuff. It's the relationships that you strengthen by sharing time with the people you care about builds the relationships that help make us truly happy in a way that no present can.
That doesn't just go for the holidays either. Sharing your most limited resource — time — with the people you care about never goes out of style. Every moment is a chance to create memories that endure and strengthen the relationships with people you care about.
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