In the film A Christmas Story, Ralphie desperately wants “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200 shot range model air rifle.” His mom resists because she reckons it will damage his well-being. (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) In the end, though, Ralphie gets the air rifle and deems it “the greatest Christmas gift I ever received, or would ever receive.”
This Christmas, why not give your friends and family the gift of well-being? Even removing an air rifle and the possibility of eye injury from the mix, that’s easier said than done.
Well-being is tough to pin down. It takes many forms. A college student, a middle-aged parent, and a spritely octogenarian might all lead very different lives and still have well-being. What’s more, you can’t wrap up well-being and tuck it under the tree. All you can do is give gifts that promote it. But what kind of gift promotes well-being?
One that establishes or strengthens the positive grooves that make up a good life. You have well-being when you’re stuck in a “positive groove” of:
- emotions (e.g., pleasure, contentment),
- attitudes (e.g., optimism, openness to new experiences),
- traits (e.g., extraversion, perseverance), and
- success (e.g., strong relationships, professional accomplishment, fulfilling projects, good health).
Your life is going well for you when you’re entangled in a success-breeds-success cycle comprised of states you find (mostly) valuable and pleasant.
Some gifts do this by producing what psychologists call flow. They immerse you in an activity you find rewarding. Flow gifts are easy to spot. They’re the ones, like Ralphie’s air rifle, that occupy you all day.
A flow gift promotes well-being by snaring you into a pleasure-mastery-success loop. A flow gift turns you inward, toward a specific activity and away from the rest of the world. It involves an activity that’s fun, that you get better at with practice, and that rewards you with success, even if that “success” is winning a video game car race.
Flow is important to a good life. It feels good, and it fosters excellence. It’s the difference between the piano-playing wiz and the kid (like me) who fizzled out. But there’s more to well-being than flow and excellence.
A bonding gift turns you outward, toward other people. A bonding gift shows how someone thinks and feels about you. In O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, a young couple, Jim and Della, sacrifice their “greatest treasures” to buy each other Christmas gifts. Della sells her luxurious long hair to buy a chain for Jim’s gold watch. And Jim sells his gold watch to buy the beautiful set of combs Della yearned for.
Bonding gifts change people’s relationships. The chain and the combs strengthen and deepen Jim and Della’s love, affection and commitment. This is why “of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
The bonds of love and friendship are not just emotional. They’re causal. We’re tangled up with the people we care about in self-sustaining cycles of positive feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments. Good relationships are shared, interpersonal positive grooves. This is why they make us better and happier people. Bonding gifts strengthen the positive groove you share with a person you care about.
You’re probably wondering whether you can find something that’s an effective bonding and flow gift. I must admit, I’ve never managed it. A tandem bike? Alas, no. Perhaps you can do better.
So this holiday season, why not give “groovy” gifts – gifts that “keep on giving” by ensnaring your loved ones in cascading cycles of pleasure and value.
Image credit: Stockphotography wrapping paper via Hubspot.