This time of year, it can be easy for parents to slip into shopping overdrive. The idea of a picture-perfect holiday calls for a home filled with heaps of presents and kids growing dizzy with glee as they unwrap amazing gifts.

As many of us know, these must-have items provide kids with brief flashes of joy and often quickly lose their luster. The toy that is so special in December is found squished under a bed, shoved into a closet and missing come June. Parents have to wonder: Was that temporary bliss worth the cost of purchasing all those presents?

According to Ed de St. Aubin, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Marquette University, research has shown that other ways of spending money — or not spending at all — can go further in producing lasting happiness.

"It's not how much a person spends, but the way they spend," he said. "Buy truly special gifts, contribute to non-profits or charities or spend money on experiences with friends or family. We know that can go a long way in terms of happiness."

Give the gift of experience

Before loading up the shopping cart this season, one tactic parents can consider is giving gifts of shared family experience in lieu of more stuff.

Physical objects can provide temporary joy, but this brief surge subsides very quickly. "Kind of like a drug, it just leads to a loop of needing more and more. It's overload," said de St. Aubin.

When faced with a mountain of holiday gifts, this happiness can plateau, or even lead to negative feelings of overindulgence, he added.

On the other hand, time and energy spent fostering family experiences, like attending a concert at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts or ice skating together at Red Arrow Park, can engender feelings of happiness that can continue to grow over time.

In addition to the experience itself, the anticipation, preparation and then memory of the outing can elicit pleasant feelings.

"Think about a weekend trip to see grandma: You start by talking about it, anticipating your trip, making her a card. And afterward, even years later, you can still reminisce about your experience," said de St. Aubin. "We're really a lot happier doing things with people we love rather than having the newest gadget."

Turns out that even a bad experience, like a rainy camping trip, will yield positive memories over time when it turns into a funny anecdote or family joke. A bad purchase, however, always remains just a bad purchase.

Investing in others

Another smart choice for parents is to spend time as a family helping people who are less fortunate.

"Volunteering is a great way to spend time together and serve others at the same time. Everyone benefits because it really does feel good to think about someone else and help them," said Bonnie Andrews, manager of Volunteer Milwaukee, a service of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee.

Donating money that could have been allocated to family gifts or volunteering together can have a tremendous impact on both the well-being of the family and the community.

The perspective gained by kids through volunteering is key.

"Children measure what they have relative to friends and neighbors and family. Volunteering broadens their perspective without the guilt, without making them feel awful, but still lets them know: there are kids in our community who don't even have shoes," de St. Aubin said.

Such perspective helps children develop gratitude, and being truly thankful for the little things is integral to happiness, he added.

Volunteering is a great way to teach children about altruism, said Andrews, and talking about the experience is an important component.

"Prepare children for the activity and then discuss the experience. It's a great time to answer a child's questions or to clear up any misunderstandings," she said.

Strategic giving

When buying gifts, parents should consider what impact an item might have on family dynamics. New bikes, for example, offer the possibility of family bike rides, whereas new headphones are not conducive to conversation or shared family time.

This process of conscious consumerism can be an opportunity for parents to teach their children their family's values.

"As they age, bring the child into this decision making. Discuss why you might want to buy a bike instead of a television," said de St. Aubin.

The key is to find objects that foster connection and enable parents to spend time with their kids. According to the American Psychological Association, the amount of quality time kids spend with parents has a direct impact on their levels of happiness.

"The best thing you can do is just spend time with your kids," said de St. Aubin. " The payoff is that you're building a bond. If you're the guy peanut buttering the toast in the morning, that really means something later when you're talking about serious issues." ■

Carrie Trousil Beckeris a Milwaukee-area freelance writer who works in association with her editor and creative director Jack (also known as her son).

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