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As a Marketing professor I am inherently skeptical of anything claiming to be the “best” or the “most” or  especially “new and improved,” which often translates to “pretty much the same product, but in a ‘new’ smaller package that will ‘improve’ our corporate earnings.” In fact I’m inherently skeptical of many things, like when a phone call begins with, “This is not a sales call,” or when a comment starts with, “I’m not telling you how do your job,” or when someone says, “this is not about the money,” or anytime a politician opens his mouth. Or walks into a room. Or breathes.

With that disclaimer in mind, I want to tell you about the best* Christmas gift I ever received, by which I mean the best gift I received a few years ago, and one of the few specific gifts I remember getting, ever, which should tell you something about the lasting value of most of the gifts we obsess over (or perhaps just about my poor memory). I do remember receiving a gold hippie necklace back in the 70’s and it was awesome, and I remember getting forks from my lovely wife one year because I failed to provide the requested wish list and we needed forks so that was what I got. The forks were less awesome than the necklace, and I learned my lesson about getting her a list, every year, early, because you don’t mess with my wife.

Speaking of my wife and gifts, I stink (pardon my harsh language but it is appropriate) at buying gifts. Even though I don’t remember most of the gifts I have received, I distinctly remember several strikingly bad gifts I have given her over the years, the most notable of which was a large green pine-scented candle with 3 wicks. I have always thought these multi-wick candles were cool and the green color was festive and it seemed like an ideal gift as I was standing there waiting to check out at Wal-Mart. I knew this because the helpful sign said,”Makes an ideal gift” so I bought it. The reaction was, how shall I say…muted, polite, but unimpressed. It turns out that my wife does not like the smell of pine-scented candles, even the festive green ones with three wicks. Strangely, she seemed to think that I should have known this, perhaps because she had told me so the year before when I gave her an identical candle. “Ideal gift,” right. Marketers are such liars.

At age 51, I still love the Christmas holidays, but I am pretty much over the ‘thrill’ of receiving Christmas gifts, which means I have realistic expectations and I enjoy the event itself more than the actual prizes I take home. So I was surprised a few years ago to receive the gift in the photo at the top of this post. In case you can’t tell it’s a frozen drink at Starbucks. Just kidding. It’s a small snowman, and it was a gift from my sister-in-law’s kids. It consists of a sock, filled with rice, and decorated with buttons, straight pins, and a scrap of cloth, but the part you can’t see is the part that earned it the label of best* gift: they made this for me. And after telling them “thank you” and moving on to the next gift in the process, I found myself imagining the production process. I saw them, at their kitchen table, with rice and socks and buttons everywhere. I could hear the comments the kids were making and see my sister-in-law maintaining tenuous control of the process, and imagine the crises that accompany any large scale production process (“Clean up on aisle 4!”). I have no idea how it really went down, but that’s what I pictured. And it made me smile.

I took the snowman home and set it on my dresser and every time I looked at it, I smiled again. This may not mean much to you, but this was during a season of our lives that did not include a lot of smiles (more on this in January) and every time I pictured them working together it brightened my day. I’m smiling as I sit here writing this.

By most objective measures, this was a minor gift. It was not expensive. It is not unique or one-of-a-kind (most of the extended family members own one). It has no practical or functional value; I guess I could boil the rice, or sew the buttons on a suit coat. I can’t invest it, or derive any benefit from it except the simple enjoyment it gives me, and I suspect my own irrational reaction is part of its charm. In summary, this gift does nothing except bring me pure, simple pleasure, and in that way it is somewhat unique among the thousands of gifts I have received in my lifetime. I expect the same reaction next year when we unbox it for the holidays, and I can’t fully explain that, but I look forward to it.

Richard O’Connor, in his book Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy, has helped shape my perspective on where this elusive thing we call ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’ comes from. His major contention, which we will consider in depth next year, is that happiness is not automatic, and it takes work, and at least some of our unhappiness comes from wrongly assuming that we should automatically be happy. But from the entire book, which is full of huge, profound ideas, one simple line stuck with me:

A really good grilled cheese sandwich can go a long way toward making your day, if you have the right outlook. Happiness is smaller than you think

As I am finishing this post I am feeling profound joy that our toilet just flushed. That doesn’t seem like a big thing, except that our main house drain was clogged all day, and now it’s not, and it required no digging on my part, and the check I just wrote involved fewer than four digits, and frankly I was getting pretty uncomfortable. Happiness is often smaller than you think.

I hope your holiday season is full of meaningful experiences, and that you pay enough attention to find joy in the small events which comprise 99% of our lives. Can’t wait to see what the kids made me this year!


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