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Monique Keiran: Christmas experiences better than things

A friend rings me in December every year and warbles, “Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me.” Her sometime-Eartha Kitt, sometime-Madonna Material Girl imitation morphs into one of a 10-year-old requesting a hippopotamus for Christmas.

A friend rings me in December every year and warbles, “Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me.” Her sometime-Eartha Kitt, sometime-Madonna Material Girl imitation morphs into one of a 10-year-old requesting a hippopotamus for Christmas.

Then she moves onto the greedier lines of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, and ends with a rousingly nasal rendition of the Chipmunks demanding hula hoops and planes that loop the loop. We call this annual singsong The Gimme, Gimme, Gimme Medley. It seems to suit the season.

Yet, despite singing about wantin’ stuff, Bev and I inevitably end up talking about events and activities. The concerts we attend during December. The dinners with friends. The family gatherings, the anticipated holiday vacations, the quiet days with good books… .

Some of the activities we talk about come with price tags. Some require only time and effort.

Chances are, those experiences will influence our emotions to greater, longer-lasting and more positive effect than any possessions we acquire during the season, no matter how much we may covet the objects.

According to San Francisco State University psychologist Ryan Howell, people who invest in acquiring experiences over obtaining possessions report greater happiness and life satisfaction. Experiences can include anything from attending concerts or theatre to spending time at the spa, to travel or even going for walks.

These results apply, I would think, to people who enjoy sufficient food, shelter, and other necessities — people whose basic needs are already amply met.

Howell and his team surveyed almost 10,000 people’s shopping habits, personality traits, values and life satisfaction. He attributes the greater happiness oomph of experiences over new things in part to our inevitable waning satisfaction with possessions.

With each passing day, our baseline emotions regarding new property shift as we grow accustomed to it. Within weeks or months, the cool new smartphone, hip new outfit or awesome new bike loses its coolness, its hipness or its awesomeness, and becomes yet another gadget, piece of clothing or tool.

Experiences, on the other hand, end. When they do, only memories remain. And memories of good times often become fonder with time. Never underestimate the happiness-making potential of happy memories. We can, given time, transform even memories of misfortune into positive social capital.

I’m speaking, of course, of memories of that disastrous family vacation taken years ago, when Nature Boy locked the keys in the rental car at the end of that remote, middle-of-nowhere deserted road in Backofbeyond, Texas, or of that calamitous holiday dinner when Aunt Sherry imbibed too much of her namesake and Cousin Tim imitated Mr. Bean with the turkey. I’ve dined off such tales for years.

Never underestimate the happiness potential of causing hilarity among friends — which, I might point out, is the process of creating another kind of experience. Remember: they’re laughing WITH you.

Social capital provides another reason why experiences’ happiness quotient often trumps that of possessions. Whether we take a vacation, sample an exquisite meal, or go to the theatre, our experiences usually involve other people. Shared experiences further our sense of relatedness to others. They knit together friendship, trust, and community, create common memories and mythologies, and fulfil our deep-seated need for social bonding.

All this, for just a couple of concert tickets, a shared meal or a walk on a beach.

Howell’s study subjects also reported greater sense of vitality or “being alive” both during their experiences and while remembering them. To truly experience something, we must be present physically, mentally and emotionally. Later, when we recall the event, we relive it on some level.

So forget things this year. Give experiences instead. And most especially give your time and presence to family and friends so that, together, you can build up your common arsenal of shared experience and shared memories.

If nothing else, call them up and sing them a song.