Wrapped presents surrounded by holiday lights


Does getting gifts really make us happy?

As a parent, I try to teach my kids about the importance of gratitude and giving, especially during the holidays. This gets especially difficult during this gift-giving season. Why is it that my kids (and I'm guilty as well) get caught up in the season and end up wanting more and more? Is it our brains telling us we want — and need — more in order to be happy? Possibly. Here are a few thoughts to noodle:  

  • We mix-up gratification and real joy. We often feel gratified when we get something new, but that gratification isn't the same thing as real joy. Gratification is central to our brain's reward and motivation systems. But when we confuse it with actual joy, we start to think we can't really be happy — or that our kids won't be happy — without all the gifts. 
  • Societal norms. Yes, society has built up the holidays as the gift-giving time of year. The sales and never-ending commercials pull at our heart-strings and convince us we couldn't possibly have a happy holiday without an abundance of gifts. 
  • The dopamine rush. When our brain identifies a possible reward, it releases a powerful chemical called dopamine. This dopamine rush propels us toward the reward. Dopamine is also released when a person gambles, takes certain addictive drugs or just engages in a new exciting adventure. For many of us, and our kids, receiving gifts is very rewarding, so our dopamine levels increase and push us to want more and more. 

Changing our patterns
While it may be tough at first, and it may take a few years, we can look beyond the gifts and work to create holiday traditions that will truly bring real joy and lasting happiness. By spending time with family and friends, we develop more meaningful traditions that will carry on for years to come.   


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