I’ve been thinking a lot recently about something Melanie Kirkpatrick, the author of a new and lovely book about Thanksgiving, told me in an interview for this blog. Many people are quick to dismiss black Friday and the holiday shopping bonanza as materialistic—an example of the worst excesses of our consumerist culture. But Melanie reminded me that at the heart of holiday shopping is actually another sentiment—generosity.


When I think of holiday shopping like that, it puts a different spin on things. All of the people rushing around and filling their carts with goodies are not victims of a consumerist culture, as they’re sometimes stereotyped to be; rather, they’re individuals who are trying to bring some joy to the lives of the people they love and care about. That’s a very noble thing.


And it makes me wonder—what does it mean to be a generous gift giver?


Generosity, though certainly a virtue, is also complicated and can even be taken to an extreme. For example, some people spend beyond their means during the holidays because they want to buy presents for others. Is that an irresponsible gesture, or something we should celebrate as part of the spirit of the season? Other people buy many gifts for their loved ones, even if those gifts aren’t particularly thoughtful or useful. Again—is this a praiseworthy instance of generosity or not?


I’m reminded here of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, who, like Ben Franklin, believed that the good life is a life of virtue. Aristotle famously argued that a virtue is the mean between two vices. For example, courage is the virtue lying between cowardice and rashness. So how would this reasoning apply to generosity? At Patheos, Chris Henrichsen writes:


The key to generosity for Aristotle is giving the right amount to the right people. One thing to keep in mind, is that for Aristotle when we discuss generosity the category we are analyzing is not generosity but rather we are analyzing how we use our money. The virtue is generosity. The excessive vice is not excessive generosity. Very rarely is the case the we give too much money to the right people. Instead, we are more likely to put out money towards things which bring ourselves shallow pleasure.


Aristotle labeled the excessive vice as being prodigal. When being prodigal, we are very free with our money…in that we are very free with it as we spend it all on high priced fashions, expensive meals, and excessive iTunes purchases. The examples of prodigal are endless, but each of us does it in our own way. You know how this vice plays a role your life.


Interesting. So maybe the most generous way to be a gift-giver this season is, very simply, to be very thoughtful and selective about the gifts we give. Instead of being prodigal in your gift-giving—buying many trivial things for someone—perhaps we should aim to get one or two items that are meaningful. And instead of buying people gifts that bring them “shallow pleasure,” perhaps we should get them things that will somehow make a lasting impression on them. That may sound like a tall order, but there’s psychology research that points a way forward. In studies, researchers have found that people derive more joy from experiences (like going out to dinner or talking a walk) than things (like a new pair of shoes or a watch).

One reason is that experiences are shared with others, which amplifies happiness and creates opportunities for bonding. Another is that experience create memories that people can later savor.


Along these lines, I had a friend who recently gifted her brother an experience—for the two of them to spend the afternoon together doing random acts of kindness. Not only did they have a wonderful time together, but they also created a lovely memory they’ll always relish—and all while, improving the lives of those around them. Not only was the gift itself generous—the gift of our time, after all, is often more valuable than any purchased items we could give—but it also brought generosity to others. I think Ben Franklin would approve.


Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.