Finding Joy in Enough

With Black Friday behind us, we are now officially in the annual biathlon of spending and overeating – a feeding frenzy not for the faint of heart or light of wallet.

Economists see the holiday shopping season as a bellwether, reflecting our collective “consumer confidence.” This gauge assumes that when we’re optimistic and upbeat, we spend. Only when we’re anxious and gloomy do we save.

In the wake of the 2007-2009 recession, Americans got serious about fiscal dieting – cutting out extraneous purchases, trimming back borrowing and accelerating payments on existing debt. Household savings rates, which had bottomed out around 2 percent in 2005, rose to more than 8 percent by 2010.

But it’s looking like that budgetary belt-tightening was a fad diet. In each of the past three quarters, total household debt rose while the savings rate fell (down to nearly 4 percent). And in the darkest days of the year, who wants to be a morose Scrooge in the midst of merry spenders? We are primed to find, come January, both our credit card balances and bathroom scales reflecting signs of holiday excess.

Living in a culture where “less” is a pejorative, it’s easy to get caught and dragged along in sale stampedes. We’re all susceptible to the “buyer’s high” that comes from acquiring new items. It can seem as if the rush of satisfaction from a coveted purchase will last–even though past experience confirms how quickly that buzz wears off. Psychologists call this pattern the “hedonic treadmill,” suggesting that what feels novel and decadent at first soon becomes routine (failing to deliver any greater happiness long-term).

Worse still, many impulse purchases and holiday gifts become just another thing to clean, maintain and fix. “Stuff is not neutral,” write Judi Culbertson and Marj Decker in their book Scaling Down. “It demands attention, weighs you down, causes stress.” Stuff has a way of overtaking our lives, consuming more time, energy and money than we ever intended (just ask the 9 percent of Americans who pay monthly for self-storage units).

A truer basis for happiness can be found in acquiring less and experiencing more. Study after study affirms that increased life satisfaction comes – not from excessive material goods – but through engagement with others and meaningful work and recreation.

The Scandinavians are way ahead of us here, placing emphasis this time of year on tradition, good food and camaraderie – not shop-’til-you-drop experiences in big-box stores. The Swedish word “lagom” suggests the great satisfaction inherent in moderation. Lagom är bäst (“lagom is best”), a popular proverb, can be translated “Enough is as good as a feast.” Swedes celebrate the happy medium between too little and too much.

Sadly, there is no equivalent in our lexicon to remind us that fulfillment lies, not in excess, but in enough. Lacking that cultural ethos, we’re left to navigate our way through endless shopping opportunities to a more enduring basis for contentment. Here are a few signposts that may help:

A true gift meets genuine needs.

Food makes a great holiday gift because we need to eat. It takes no long-term space, requires no maintenance and induces no guilt (if the receiver chooses to pass it along to someone who could better enjoy it). Offer gifts that will be used or used up, avoiding items destined to become burdensome clutter.

 Wait and consult.

With discretionary purchases, take a 24-hour waiting period to consider how essential the item or gift is. If finances are shared, set a cap ($50 or $100, for example) as to what each person can spend on non-essentials without mutual consultation. Our partners may offer the critical distance needed to dissuade us from purchases we’ll later regret.

 Save first, spend later.

It’s time to turn the consumer confidence index on its head. Putting money by for the future should be read as a sign of optimism, not anxiety. It’s hardly cause for confidence that 36 percent of Americans (26 percent of those aged 50-64!) have nothing saved for retirement, according to a recent Bankrate survey. The only reliable way to ensure that a fixed percentage of our income makes it into savings is to place it there first.

 Give experiences.

My young son recently gushed about how last Christmas was the “best ever,” and I found myself tensing up – awaiting a detailed accounting of the gifts he’d received, and his expectation for an even greater bonanza this year. What had stuck with him, though, was the joy of making and eating kielbasa and cookies with his Grandma – and their enterprise managing holiday preparations in the midst of a power outage.

Memories like those will outlast anything wrapped he ever receives.