Materialism in Western Society
Every year, my aunt sends me a birthday card with no gift. There is no money, no gift card tucked in a small envelope and no ribbon-covered present. It always says “Happy Birthday!” with no personalized message on the inside.
Every year, I always expect something more, a small gift of some sort that will make me think she actually cares about my birthday, but I always tear through the mail to be greeted with yet another Hallmark card and her sloppy signature on the inside. All I want, for one year out of the twenty-one years in my life, for her to get me something different. It could be anything. She could give me a $5 gift card to CVS. She could get me a t-shirt two sizes too small with a neon butterfly on the front. She could even get me a watch with Winnie the Pooh on it, and I would be on my merry way. But, in the back of my mind, I know that this still wouldn’t be enough.
What my aunt doesn’t realize is that there is a certain protocol that comes with getting and giving birthday gifts. Before you start considering what kind of gift you want to give, you have to understand that everyone wants to feel special on their birthday, even if they won’t admit it. You have to acknowledge that their day is a day to be celebrated. “Most people, even if they ‘hate’ birthdays, want to feel validated in their personhood, and this is the day they became a person,”says New York Times Styles section Staff Editor Bonnie Wertheim. Most people need to feel like they’re being celebrated by those around them or else their birthday feels like a lost cause. With this in mind, you have to consider what kind of gift they would like to receive, and more importantly, what kind of gift you are willing to give. You have to consider the kind of relationship you share with the other person, or the kind of relationship you would like to have with them. You wouldn’t get your boss a round-trip plane ticket to Fiji (unless you want them out of the office for a week) and you wouldn’t get your mom a gift certificate to Chuck-E-Cheese (unless she really likes their pizza).
According to Wertheim, “your familial and emotional proximity will likely determine how personable and sizeable the gift will be.” However, sometimes it’s hard to know when too much is too much or when something is way too small. Sometimes the closer you are to the person, the harder it makes it to choose a gift wisely. Dr. Suzanne Degges-White suggests that certain characteristics of the gift can create problems. The main gift-giving roadblock comes down to preference, which can lead to a ‘“gift rift’” between the giver and the recipient. With this in mind, some people might want a gift that exemplifies their unique qualities, while others might want a gift that wows, or even a gift that is unexpected. But sometimes giving, or getting, is what makes the unexpected often difficult to navigate. It’s this variable that may cause some givers to question if their head is in the right place, since it can be tough to anticipate what others may want to receive.
Depending on the recipient, some may prefer a gift that can be preserved. Receiving a pair of concert tickets or going on a picnic in a park are sentimental, but some people might want something that will last a lifetime, something that goes beyond a fond memory they will keep. For some people, like myself, it is hard to not be stunted by the impression that the gifts we give need to be preserved in a time capsule. I think more often than not, I want the gifts I receive to last for as long as they possibly can; I want to be able to continuously use it and appreciate it. If the gift is altered in any way, it can lose its value. Some of this reasoning has to do with the striatum — the place in the brain normally known as “our brain’s monetary reward center.”
Caroline Zink and her NIMH team, National Institute of Mental Health, “used different methods to determine that we process social values in the striatum”, the place where the incentive for reward and social status collides. In the study done by NIMH, 72 volunteers tried to earn money while playing a computer game. “The scientists created an arbitrary ranking system of the real and faux players in which some of the bogus gamers appeared to perform better — and others worse — than the real ones. The participants were told that their status in the game had no effect on how much money they could win, but that earning money could boost their rank.” Surprisingly, the primary focus of each player was how they were perceived by the other players, not by how much money they were earning in the game. Consequently, the brain’s emotional centers were mostly affected in the players who kept messing up.
So how does the desire for ‘worthy’ gifts relate back to the brain? Often the things that are of value to some people, more closely the things that are received, are equated to how they are perceived by others. If someone were to receive a gift that is not worthy of flaunting to others, they would possibly feel embarrassment that they did not receive something nicer, and shame that the giver did not know them better. Like the experiment, even if money doesn’t boost rank, some people, admittedly like myself, are overcome by the impression that it could to someone else.
Sometimes it is hard to understand why I don’t get the gifts I would like to receive. Sometimes it’s even more difficult to make sense of how someone who is part of my family, could not understand that I may feel upset to not have received something from them on my birthday, on a day where I am supposed to feel great about myself, with no exceptions. I don’t think there will be a birthday where I am ecstatic to receive one of my aunt’s birthday cards, but I think now, knowing that effort can be found even in the smaller gestures, I am able to realize that just because my aunt and I might have an eternal “‘gift rift’”, doesn’t mean we have to have a life rift.
Erin Shuster is a junior writing major who secretly wants a surprise party this year.