1. The “good life” comes from doing things, not from having them. And the seasonal holidays, despite the blizzard of buy-messages, are no exception. If you really look at your own experience, it will verify what research has demonstrated over and over: we get far more lasting pleasure and satisfaction from life experiences than we do from material possessions. Don’t fall for the commercialized version of happiness, the hype that’s designed to get you to spend, spend, spend on stuff that you and the people you’re buying for probably don’t need and may not even use. Don’t buy into the equation that what you spend has any relationship with how much you care. You can spend thousands on material gifts that prove worthless, and not a dime on an activity gift that turns out to be priceless.
2. Give the gift of your time. What can you do well? Teach it to someone on your list who’d like to acquire that skill. How can you help the people you love? What would someone on your list love to have done for them? Does someone need babysitting, pet sitting, computer, camera, or ipod assistance? Give a coupon, redeemable for a few hours of bulb planting or transplanting. What can you share with people who matter to you? Treat them to a meditation class or a museum talk or a ballgame or a beading workshop that you attend with them.
3. Instead of enriching merchants, enrich your own life and the lives of the people around you. Rather than buying things, do things for and with the people on your gift list-things that nurture their hearts, minds, bodies, or spirits. Introduce yourself and someone on your list to something that will expand both of your lives. What Would Jesus Buy?, the hilarious and often thought-provoking documentary about overconsumption in during the end-of-year holidays, is a great choice. You could also sign the two of you up for a live performance, a talk, a class, a course, a retreat of some kind. You’ll find it’s actually an advance!
4. Find creative, imaginative ways to connect with family and friends. A young child’s introduction to the wonders of the sky-a visit to the planetarium or an evening spent stargazing-will last incomparably longer than the newest electronic toy. A novel and carefully planned day or evening will be remembered far more fondly than a purchase wrapped in ribbons and bows, whether a hike to a beautiful vista with a picnic lunch you’ve prepared, or a sunset stroll followed by an outdoor concert, or some down time at home with a movie and popcorn and you. Anybody can buy a given material object; nobody else can offer an experience that you’re part of.
5. Instead of opening presents, open to each other’s presence. Give the two incomparable gifts of speaking and listening. Take the time to truly share yourself in words, and take the equally important step of listening fully. Celebrate each other with genuine communication, the most intimate of gifts. Another way to do this is to write a letter or poem to someone and read it aloud to him or her; you might even include a photo of the two of you. Try a family vision-board activity. Have everyone cut out pictures from magazines that relate to a short- or long-term vision. Paste them on heavy cardboard and then talk about your visions together.
6. Create a tradition. Cook or bake together, or go together to a local tree or menorah lighting, or volunteer together in the service of your community. Invite someone to get up early and watch the sunrise with you. Adopt a child together, from an organization like Save the Children; write letters and send pictures along with the money you give.