The Christmas season is upon us (well, it is VERY close by now) and we are even more than usual bombarded with ads for the perfect Christmas gifts. Incredible deals seem to be irresistible, we feel the time pressure of finding a last minute gift and even though we know from last year that the crock pot or leaf blower really are only going to be taking up space in our (or our loved one's) garage, we just feel like we cannot resist. But what are we really "gifting" for? Out of obligation? Or because we want to make someone happy?
With the advancement in technology, buying the newest Apple iPhone or other little gadgets for our loved ones for Christmas (or even ourselves) has now become common place. New smart phones are hitting the market every month, smart watches are slowly satisfying the early majority diffusion of innovation curve, and other wearable technologies (the fit bit being the most adopted gadget in that area already) popped like popcorn into the market the last years. CNET, a well known website on technology reviews, provides a list of "16 gifts that make almost anyone happy". The list includes drones, smart watches, virtual reality applications, computers, household electronics and other more or less useful items. Being a positive media psychologist, I wonder how these gadgets are supposed to make people happy. How do we know if a new technology will actually increase our well-being?
Here are 4 questions you can ask to see if the new gadget you are about to buy is really making your loved one (or yourself) happy.
1. Will the technology foster lasting happiness?
In positive psychology the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill has been found to be the enemy to anything new that promises happiness. It means that over time, we simply get used to the new fun toy and thus happiness dissipates again. Remember the days where you were a child and you thought the new Iron Man Robot will make you forever happy, but after 3 days of playing with it, you got back to your coloring book because really there is only so much you can do with a plastic robot. However, a coloring book creates different challenges with every picture, providing variety in our experience, which, science shows, is important to increase happiness and counter the hedonic treadmill effect. So, when you think about buying a fancy smart watch or another wearable technology, think about if this device can provide varying experiences for you, so your happiness will not wear of with time because you simply get used to it.
2. Does the gadget satisfy an innate need?
Positive psychologists have identified 3 innate universal needs (self-determination theory) that are essential for our psychological health and well-being and they include the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. You can be assured that if your gadget tabs on any of them, it will likely have a lasting impact on your happiness. For example, any form of smart watch really is just an extension of our smart phones. And while it may satisfy our need for autonomy, that is feeling in control of our life, and relatedness, that is our need to feel connected to and care for others, it also may just create the illusion that it satisfies those needs. Because really, who is in control when the notification pings on our phone and we immediately drop everything we are doing, even a conversation with a loved one, only to check what that notification is? It is not us, but the technology. Now I am not against smart watches, but I think the minority of us is able to handle them in the right way. I found this gadget here, which is a “smart ball” synched with an app that tracks your throws and can help you to improve your basketball performance. It certainly satisfies the need for competence, which includes mastering a task, as well as autonomy. In the end, with all technology it comes down to how it is used. But if you are thinking of buying a new tech toy for a loved one, you may first want to think about how it will be used and if it will satisfy any of our innate needs, if you are interested to see a lasting happiness effect from your present.
3. Is the technology fostering connectedness or isolation?
Research in positive psychology is very clear on the point that our relationships are the most important factor for our well-being.We spend increasingly more time at work which limits the time we can spend with loved ones. I mean, after coming home from work, going to the gym, cooking for the family, there is really not much time left in the day to "play around”. It is even worse then, when the new gadgets, such as smart watches, or a virtual environment application is taking away all our attention. Now, again, we could use these technologies to play with our kids and show them, for example, what it may feel like under water (using a virtual reality headset) and discussing with them what fish we could expect to see at a lower or deeper level of the ocean. However, while I think that everyday consumer virtual reality applications such as google cardboard provide many useful opportunities in the field of education or even self-development, the technology itself does not lend itself to foster interaction with others. After all, if you have a VR headset on your face, there is little you can do to interact with others, because you cannot see them. On the other hand, playing a collaborative video game or even an I phone game like "Heads Up" does bring people together. Which again, is a good thing for our happiness level.
4. Is it more than just a thing?
Science shows that experiences make us more happy than things. Now technology inherently are things, but some are more experiential than others. For example, the SlowWatch is a watch designed to slow things down and make you think of the big picture rather then every second of your day. It is a thing but also effects how you experience your day. Another example is the LumoLift a small device that helps you notice your posture, which generally is very slouchy and not healthy or sustainable at all. It is not only useful but it helps us to become more aware of our body, an often forgotten "thing" that is right attached to our brain. Other wearable technology like the WellBe or the Oura ring that help with stress reduction and mental instead of physical well-being are another great source of experiences fostered by technology. On the other hand, even though very cool, this shoe that can change its design with the click on your smart phone, is an example of a "thing" with maybe less promise to sustain happiness from using it. In general, instead of buying a material gift, you may want to think about an adventure you can go on with your loved one as a gift and thus, make a “real” experience happen. This way not only your loved one will be happy but you will as well; plus, you get to spend more time with them, which is what matters for well-being.
Ultimately, giving presents for Christmas is to make a loved one happy. Maybe that entails buying something that they wished for but never would get for themselves or it is something they could really use. What matters is that you give with love. If your budget doesn’t allow for some new fancy gadget, a voucher for a home cooked meal or a letter in which you express your gratitude towards your loved one or even your first knitting attempt of a hat or scarf will be just as well received. If the relationship is real and authentic, anything that comes from your heart will be appreciated.
What really matters in the Christmas season is taking time off and spending it with loved ones. In a time where smart phones are now extensions of our bodies, that means unplugging for the Holliday's, no phones on the dinner table, no laptops in the living room and just “hanging out” with friends and family. I think, this is the best gift we can give anyone. Being fully present with our loved ones. No technology distractions. Listening to their stories and sharing ours. We never know how long these moments last so we better take them all in. Here is commercial from a german grocery store which captures exactly that. You may shed a tear or two. I sure did, which only shows the truth behind it.
If you are contemplating to buy that new phone or watch or whatever it is, just think for a second if all that you want to give is not already there: You!