By the time I passed Franconia Notch in New Hampshire this past September, I was fairly certain of two things. First, the White Mountains were kicking my butt. Second, my food was not going to last until my next stop. I could live with the fact that the White Mountains were going to be harder than I thought, but I couldn’t live without food. I took a side trail to the Flume Visitor’s Center, a tourist attraction with fast food, a gift shop and, I hoped, food that could be carried out. I was disappointed to find very little I could carry with me, so I ate a personal pizza and began finding my way back to the trail wondering how I was going to make it to my next stop on the amount of food I had. This is when a couple having a picnic flagged me down to confirm I was what I looked like — a thru-hiker. Aside from chatting with me about my journey, they scoured their car for all sorts of food — fresh fruit, granola bars, nuts, and more.
Given my situation, those apples and oranges might as well have been made of gold. They were a simple gift from complete strangers and I have been thinking about gifts a lot this month because it is, after all, the gift-giving season. As I slowly try to identify the meaning of my journey this year and the changes it has produced in me, Christmas shines a very bright light on some of those changes. When needs are broken down to the bare bones and the constant influence of marketing and social pressures are removed, everything in life begins to look a bit simpler. Even Christmas, a holiday that has brought me some of the greatest joy and some of the greatest stress over the years, appears differently.
What if I had walked out of that visitor’s center and been given a brand new boat? Could it have meant as much in that time and place? Of course not. You can’t eat a boat and I was on one of the most remote sections of the Appalachian Trail. On that particular day you could have handed me five thousand dollars in cold, hard cash and it wouldn’t have made a grocery store pop up over the next mountain ridge. If fruit, granola and nuts can create such joy in this time and place — both on my part, and on the part of the couple who gave them — why not in another? Why not at Christmas?
I think it can. I’m not suggesting you buy oranges and granola bars for everyone on your list this year. It’s the connection between the gift and the recipient. Let’s say your friend has a leaky faucet in their bathroom. Day after day, night after night, drip… drip… drip. It drives her up the wall. She has tried in desperation to fix it but has been unable and the high cost of a plumber is out of the question. You are pretty handy and think you can fix it. Is there anything you could buy at the mall that could match removing such a constant annoyance from a friend’s life?
Depending on your particular set of friends and family, such a gift might raise some eyebrows. Who cares? Your friend is going to remember it for a long time to come. You have given something money cannot buy: peace of mind. Sanity, even. Cut loose those invisible social constraints. Become a rebel.
Or, simply share a bit of science. The thing is, gift-giving is non-linear. This is a term used primarily in mathematics and certain sciences that means, in its simplest form, that an increase in one variable will not result in a proportional increase in another. Giving someone three video games will not cause three times the amount of joy as giving them one. The same is true in terms of money, time, and effort. A $100 dinner is not twice as delicious as a $50 dinner. In short, the little bit of thought, an hour or two of time, and maybe even a few dollars spent at Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet has the potential to create more genuine happiness than spending hundreds of dollars on a gift.
This is not to say that spending money on a gift is bad. Maybe that same friend spends an hour every day washing dishes by hand. In that case, maybe a $500 dishwasher is literally a life-changer. The point is that money and quantity are poor standards of measurement in the world of gift-giving. We live in a society with so many influences that I’m not so sure that we always write our own shopping lists. Let’s say you’re at lunch with two friends today and they tell you they are spending $10 and $15 respectively on each co-worker gift. Your plan was to give everyone a $5 coffee card. Did your plan just change? Psychology has shown time and time again that for a large proportion of people, it did. When this is the case, did you really choose your gift, or did someone else?
This attachment of dollar value to gifts may be a more implicit, subconscious phenomenon, but it’s there. If you spend more on one person than another, do you feel guilty? Do you feel guilty even if the thought behind the gift and the value of the gift to the person receiving it are the same? I love that Nick Offerman, star of Parks and Recreation, started writing books. I think he just may have single-handedly restored my faith in Hollywood. In his semi-autobiographical book ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’ he talks about the value of making a gift with your own hands. Here is someone who can afford the latest trends pushed by Madison Avenue, yet has found that he makes much more of an impression by giving friends and family something he built in the wood shop.
There is a reason that many psychology majors end up in marketing. Market research and certain aspects of economics follow essentially the same procedures as psychological research, there are simply different goals. A psychologist may study what causes individuals to spend more money than they can afford. A marketing company will study what concepts (advertising campaigns) will cause individuals to buy their product. And then implement the winners.
We can tell ourselves that marketing does not affect us, that we are smart consumers — I know I tell this to myself — but the truth is that companies are willing to spend so much on marketing for one reason and one reason only: it works. It does not work on everyone, every time, but we are all susceptible to at least some degree. There is also some gray area. Advertisements tell us that products exist. The question becomes whether we purchase a product because we want it or because the guy in the commercial bought one and got the supermodel. So I go back to the example above: If your shopping list is full of products you — or so much more often the case, children — learned about through advertisements, did you really write the shopping list or has it been hacked?
If there were an end-of-year thru-hiker ceremony, I suspect I would win oddball loner by a landslide. Why hike alone? Among other reasons, I understand very well how much we influence one another. I wanted to experience my hike, not someone else’s, and I did. This was particularly important to me because I thought the less influence I was under while studying culture, the more objectively I could view the subject.
There was a side effect to these months of solitude that I did not anticipate. I have returned to find that there are all sorts of new electronic gizmos around that weren’t here when I left. I must admit I love gadgets, but to my surprise I have been much less interested than usual. I haven’t been been hammered with advertisements for months leading up to a product launch because I was in the middle of the woods. I haven’t heard them talked about endlessly because I had much less social interaction than usual. Perhaps most influential, I spent a good deal of the time studying how consumerism had grown over the last century or so. I had a new skepticism, a new version of critical thinking sharpened by months of focusing on the bare necessities.
I am not suggesting that we should shut out all forms of advertising, cross to the other side of the road when a big, shiny billboard is coming up, or even live in the woods for six months to gain perspective. I am simply suggesting, I think, that sometimes throwing some snacks a hiker’s way, making a gift with your bare hands, or fixing a maddening leaky faucet can make you much more of a hero than driving to the mall.