My Mum will not be buying me a Christmas present this year. This is not because I have been bad (or at least not that bad). Rather, it is because Mum has decided to try and get in touch with the “true spirit of Christmas”. Accordingly, toys and underwear are out, and instead each of her children will be getting homemade Christmas puddings, “made with love”.
This major announcement, signalling the commencement of a new epoch, has got me thinking over the past few weeks. Initially my thoughts centred on who I would now have to ask for a copy of the new Robbie Williams CD, but since then have turned to a question of (perhaps) greater importance - what exactly is the “true spirit of Christmas”, and how do we get in touch with it? Does it start and end with the ingredients in the pudding bowl, or is there something more?
It is interesting that we even need to explore such questions. December comes around each year, and as regular as clockwork the Christmas trees and decorations come out, the office Christmas parties get under way (for better or worse), and the signwriters appear to have somehow overnight turned our regular shopping hub into the festive capital of the universe. But why are we celebrating?
A quick response is obviously that Christmas marks the birth of Christ, and it is appropriate to break open the chocolate coated peanuts and the dusty bottle of Chardonnay to give our “thumbs up” to Mary for a job well done. But in a largely secular society as Australia is, surely this cannot be the complete story. Christmas is a joyous occasion even for those who believe Christ is the guy with the shiny hair who hosts "Candles By Candlelight" each year.
The fact is that in our contemporary society the meaning of Christmas has become increasingly blurred, thus making it all the more difficult to capture the “true spirit of Christmas”. Due to this uncertainty, the topic of Christmas has become a recent area of study for academics like me. Indeed, Christmas has drawn the attention of a group of psychologists, economists and others devoting their energy to the emerging “science of happiness”.
While Aristotle wrote a long while back that happiness is the main objective in life, the concept has traditionally had little influence over social policy and community discourse. Happiness has been considered too vague and indeterminate to shape how we live and are governed. This traditional approach is now on the way out. An abundance of empirical studies now exists to provide guidance as to what does and does not contribute to human happiness.
According to these happiness scholars, we can make the celebration of Christmas a joyous one if we shape Christmas so that it is conducive to happiness, rather than having a “flatline” effect on our happiness radar or, worst still, being a cause of unhappiness.
In a paper published in the international Journal of Happiness Studies entitled “What Makes for a Merry Christmas?”, academics Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon identify seven typical experiences that are associated with Christmas, ranging from attending church to shopping for presents, and from surveys conducted after the Christmas period endeavoured to work out the extent to which each experience contributed to the happiness of those interviewed.
What Kasser and Sheldon found was that on average the individuals surveyed reported significantly lower levels of happiness when spending money and receiving gifts was treated as a major part of the Christmas experience. Moreover, the individuals who were the happiest during the Christmas holiday were those for whom being with family and or religious observance was a major part of Christmas.
According to Kasser and Sheldon, “the path to a merry Christmas comes not from purchasing many expensive gifts at the mall, wrapping them and placing them under the tree, but instead from satisfying deeper needs to be close to one’s family and finding meaning in life”.
The results from Kasser and Sheldon’s study are not surprising. Happiness studies have consistently disproved any positive link between pursuing a life of materialism and one’s level of happiness, once basic needs are satisfied. An iPod or an expensive piece of bling just doesn’t put a smile on the dial in the way a hug or coffee with a friend does. Happiness scholars attribute this to so-called “adaptation” - we think that a new BMW will lift us out of depression, and for a couple of weeks it might, but soon enough we are miserable again. Now, with a BMW, we think that a Lamborghini is the answer. So on we go along a “hedonic treadmill”, thinking we’re strutting fast along a path to eternal bliss, only to eventually find that we are in exactly the same place as we started (if we’re lucky).
So with this high price of materialism, why have we bought in to a Christmas which is increasingly characterised by mass marketing, screaming kids in toy shops, supermarkets transformed into the New York subway, and maxed-out credit cards? This is particularly curious when Christ, the guy for whom we originally kicked off this event to honour, is the traditional symbol of anti-materialism. Further, how can we get back on track and be free to experience the “true spirit of Christmas”, one in which we can enjoy family or religious observation without suffering from sore feet due to a frantic race from shop to shop over the previous week?