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About a decade ago, I came to a realization: Each Christmas, I exchanged gifts with people, and within a few weeks I had forgotten what I gave everyone. In some cases, I also forgot who gave me what, or to my dismay quickly lost or broke the items I received.
What I eventually discovered was that exchanging presents, while fun in the moment, was not significantly deepening my relationships with anyone1. In some cases, it was even weakening relationships, as the gift highlighted not how close I was to my loved ones but rather how little we actually knew each other. Think of someone giving a Star Wars shirt to a Star Trek fan — suddenly the recipient knows the giver doesn’t understand them at all.
So my wife and I decided to try an experiment: Instead of giving gifts to my extended family, we would take everyone out for an activity. The idea was that instead of spending $10 each on 10 people, for example, we’d take everyone out together for something that cost $100.
Over the years we’ve done all sorts of activities. The first two years, we did a kind of Star Trek reenactment experience. Then we spent a few years doing laser tag. One year we went to this thing call Evermore, which is like Disneyland if Disneyland were just the lines and no rides. We skipped last year due to COVID-19, but the year prior we all went to Chuck E Cheese, which was surprisingly way cooler than you’d think.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these experiences in the context of my post from a couple of weeks ago. The post noted how researchers found it takes people many, many hours together to deepen relationships. Want to turn an acquaintance into a best friend? You’ll probably need to spend 200 hours together.
I wasn’t aware of this research when my wife and I started doing our “activity” Christmas presents, but that was essentially what we were trying to do: Use our limited time and resources on the thing that was likeliest to improve our relationships with the people we cared for the most.
This newsletter is about (among other things) documenting the real-life experiments I’m embarking on in an attempt to find a stronger, deeper social circle. And while many things I’ve tried have failed, this Christmas activity thing is not one of them. In fact, I highly recommend it. It has not single handedly counteracted the isolating forces of living in our modern society. But I think it has been more effective at relationship maintenance than giving people things2 3.
As always, I am not here to tell anyone what to do. If you love giving presents, do it4. But my feeling is that the research5 indicates relationships take time. And if you, like me, find gift-giving to be neutral at best when it comes to impacting relationships, this might be an option6.
So there’s that. Gift giving events can also double as opportunities to hit the time threshold that researchers believe is essential for deepening relationships. There’s this week’s thesis.
But there’s more, actually.
As I was writing this post, I remembered the passage below, from Robin Dunbar’s recent book, about the importance of stories for creating a sense of community:
Stories and folktales are what bind us together as a community. They tell us who we are and why we have obligations toward each other. Folktales and other stories form an important basis for bonding the wider community: we belong together because we all know the same folktales, we find the same things amusing, we share the same moral values, we have the same history expressed in the origin tales of our tribe. […] These serve to bind us into a single community that facilitates cooperation.7
In other words, a collection of individuals need shared stories and folklore if they want to feel like a group8.
In my experience, it takes a massive amount of time together to produce even a single story that might cross into group lore. Case in point: This last summer my extended family went to Seattle for about a week. We were together most of that time.
At one point during the trip, several of us almost missed the last ferry from Bainbridge Island back to the city. As a result, we had to sprint down the dock while the ferry waited for us. I pushed our 3-year-old in a stroller and sprinted up a steep walkway, bouncing my sleepy daughter along the way. It sounds like a minor thing, but it’s probably the best candidate for a story from that trip that’ll be told over and over.
So, it took 150 hours together — about the same amount of time needed to move someone from an acquaintance to a close friend — to produce a single lore-worthy tale. Which is to say, you only get a shared folklore when you invest a lot of time in people.
Holiday’s strike me as the perfect time to try building that folklore, or at least start clocking the hours that it takes to eventually have it. And I’m reminded here of the song “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which includes these lyrics:
There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
I’ve always been baffled by those lyrics. “Glories of Christmases long, long ago”? Christmas is fun and nostalgic, but I never associated “glory” with the holiday9. However, in the context of shared experiences, time spent together, and common lore, it’s the perfect word. And the only way to achieve any glory is to go out and do things together.
On the other hand, I find it interesting that the song mentions parties, gay happy meetings, caroling and stories. But not once does it ever mention presents. This time of year is wonderful, it argues, only inasmuch as it is spent in good company.
Thanks for reading to the end of this post. If you dig this kind of thing forward it to a friend. What’s the worst that could happen?
Headlines to read this week:
“Imagine holidays freed from the financial anxiety of buying for a long list of relatives, the worry that the gift you give someone won’t be equivalent in value to the one you receive, the pressure to come up with ideas for those who can’t figure out how to shop for you, and the burden of the unwanted items you’re left with when people mean well but miss the mark. Imagine if we all just got together to eat, and let go of this ridiculous ritual of spending tons of money and mental energy and not ending up with much we actually want.”
One exception to this in my opinion is presents for kids. I also appreciate the ritual aspect of opening presents together, which itself can be an experience. That said, in my life it has been a relatively fleeting experience compared to going out and doing something.
You can ask my family members their take. We recently had a spirited debate about presents and, as always in my family, there was a range of views on this issue. As usual, however, I was right and everyone who disagreed with me was wrong.
Part of that is also that these activities require planning, which in turn requires more time together.
It’s perhaps worth a word or two on the concept of “love languages” here. I hear that term bandied about constantly as if its some sort of scientific classification. It’s not. It was popularized by a book that a Baptist pastor wrote in the 1990s, which is probably why the concept has a very “Chicken Soup For the Soul” feel to it. I know some people find it to be a useful lens through which to look at the world, and that’s great. But I am not one of those people.
The research I’m referring to comes from anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships. The book chronicles Dunbar’s staggering number of first-hand experiments on relationships, as well as research from other experts in the field. I can’t recommend it enough.
Two caveats. First, I know lots of people do Christmas activities with loved ones and that this isn’t some revolutionary idea. But I think it’s interesting in the context of research on relationships. What a lot of people intuitively understand is backed up by science. And second, I realize this isn’t possible in every situation. I have friends and family who live too far away to participate in real-life experiences, for example (though I’m bearish on the viability of most long-term relationships over the course of many decades). Also, obviously not everyone can afford to spend time or money on loved ones. My point here is just that if you’re going to spend money on someone, the return on your investment may be greater if it’s spent on experiences rather than things. This also doesn’t have to cost much. I’d rather go to a donut shop and chat for 20 minutes while splitting a $1 maple bar than receive an object I may never use. In other words, experiences can be cheaper and less time consuming than material gifts.
Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships. Robin Dunbar. 2001. Page 179.
Obviously many people have their actual folklore that explains their situation. For instance, in my case that folklore consists primarily of stories of our ancestors coming across the Plains to the Mountain West in the mid 1800s. But I think I’m not alone among people of my generation in feeling like our grip on that cultural folklore is weakening. And in any case groups of people can certainly create their own folklore via shared experiences.
It occurs to me that it could be talking about the first Christmas, ie the birth of Jesus. But the song mentions “Christmases,” plural, so that is probably not the intent of those lyrics.