Prof: What Makes or Breaks the ‘Most Wonderful Time of the Year’

PurdueLogoA pile of gifts or an elaborate holiday feast may lead to happiness, but don't expect the feeling to last long, says a Purdue University expert.

"Research shows that giving to others improves happiness, but there are also costs to giving. Is giving about buying the latest and greatest product? When keeping up with appearances is your motivation for giving, it is detrimental to happiness," says Louis Tay, an assistant professor of psychological sciences who studies the economic and social effects on happiness.

"On the other hand, those who expect to receive expensive presents are less happy than those with non-materialistic goals in mind, like spending quality time with family and friends."

People can be misguided during the holidays because there is pressure, from marketing and even family members, on expectations. Tay says people should be clear on the difference between wants and needs.

Tay, who is director of the Happiness and Measurement Laboratory, says happiness can be defined in two ways. The first form focuses on momentary emotions, for example, being fulfilled by big-ticket items or indulging in a feast, but that feeling is often short-lived. The second emphasizes psychological wellness, which contributes to longer-term evaluations of happiness. Enhancing relationships, self-esteem and autonomy lead to a more enduring sense of happiness, Tay says.

And there are often consequences when one pursues momentary happiness headlong. Feeling the pressure to exercise after a rich meal or the dread of a credit card bill are some examples.

"During the holidays, these happy emotions turned negative transition us right into New Year's resolutions, which are often quickly abandoned," he says. "I advocate for moderation rather than excess."

Tay's research focuses economic factors on well-being at work and how larger economic factors affect individual, organizational and societal happiness. His work was recently included in the United Nation's 2013 World Happiness Report.