Yes Ralphie, there is Social Utility in Christmas Materialism

As predictable as Christmas TV-specials, Black Friday sales, and candy cane-themed mall directions, one can expect the perennial gripes from the chattering class over the increasing materialism in the holiday season. Over the years I’ve gown a bit tired of this complaint so it was refreshing to hear an intelligent push back from the ever-sharp Megan McArdle at the Bloomberg view. It turns out there is utility in giving gifts rather than purchasing things for yourselves. The holiday season is economically vindicated.

“…buying gifts for someone else actually makes you happier than spending it on yourself. They gave people money, and told them either to get something for someone else, or spend it on themselves. The people who spent it on someone else reported being much happier with the experience than the folks who bought themselves something. It seems it really is better to give than to receive.”

ralphieRead the whole thing. Personally, I feel this makes absolute sense (and should for any one who has ever shopped on the holidays).  Leaving aside the obvious sentimentality of giving and receiving gifts with friends and family, the entire endeavor has the combined fun of solving a mystery and being part of a conspiracy. Moreover, it’s nice to be forced to figure out the various things members of our families might want. As someone who lives far away from my hometown, I know much more about my family and old friends than I would otherwise.

I know, I know, buying things for people isn’t what Christmas is about. But we live in a culture that is defined by material things. Saying that people should spend quality time instead of giving is well and good. But making such gestures the norm will involve a fundamental reform of a culture where people line up for hours to get the newest phone upgrade. So for the time being being at least, we can enjoy our materialist Christmas, in spirit at least.


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