The Secret to a Merry Christmas? Skip the Mall, Go to Church

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A study finds that families who focus on buying and receiving gifts report more stress and less satisfaction during the holiday season

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To call Christmas "commercialized" today isn't a criticism so much as a statistical observation. One in every six dollars in retail spending is exchanged in the five weeks between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Analysts now expect us to spend approximately $450 billion this month, or around $700 per family -- equal to a typical month's rent.

But according to a 2002 study we surfaced for our Santanomics series, spending money won't make your Christmas any merrier. In fact, putting too much focus on buying and receiving presents might be ruining our holidays.

In a study that asked 117 people to answer questions about their emotional state during the Christmas season, Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon studied how certain holiday activities -- e.g. spending time with family, participating in religious activities, spending money on others, and receiving gifts -- affect happiness. The conclusion: "More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were especially salient, and lower well-being occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated."

The findings are summed up in this table displaying how certain variables -- demographics, activities, money use, and eco-awareness -- move our holiday-season mood.

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The top five takeaways:

1) The most important finding was that those who spent lots of time being with family, practicing their religion, and thinking about limiting consumption of electricity and auto use reported having the merriest Christmases.

2) The so-called "materialistic" aspects of Christmas had the opposite effect on well-being. People who said spending money was an important part of the holidays reported more stress. Same goes for people for whom receiving gifts was "a relatively salient experience" every December.

3) The rich aren't that different from you and me, on Christmas, at least. Neither spending a large portion of one's income or going deep into debt related to having a merrier Christmas. In fact, those who limited spending reported an even worse holiday...

4) In a fascinating twist, people who explicitly tried to limit their spending -- by agreeing to family spending limits, for example -- reported even more stress. The researchers could only guess as to why.

5) People who tried to celebrate a "green" Christmas also reported less stress and greater satisfaction.

Piecing all of this together, the study's bottom line is that the more focus you put on spending money in December, the more stressed out you'll get. Even focusing on not spending very much money creates stress. Our solution? Buy a few gifts for the people you know the best, exchange them during a family activity that isn't just about unwrapping boxes, and don't be afraid to give everybody cash

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Also in our mostly serious "Santanomics" series:

Is Christmas Bad for the Economy?

The 12 Days of Christmas? That'll Cost You a Record $101,119.84

The Behavioral Economist's Guide to Buying Presents

Christmas Gift-Giving by Country (or: Why Are the Dutch So Stingy?)

What Clever Advertising Can Teach Us About Buying Gifts

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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