The Season of Presents

At the DeSantis household, there are a lot of presents to open. Olivia turns five today, and we strain to make sure that her birthday doesn’t become a Christmas afterthought (or I guess, in this case, before-thought).

She’s actually had two weekends worth of birthday, because we’re trying to raise a monster child with overly high expectations for the rest of her life. Last weekend she had a birthday party with her kid friends, this weekend a family birthday with Kate’s family.

At each instance, there were presents. I have a video somewhere on some device of her opening presents around age two. At that age, it was like how I imagine a neanderthal would attack a haunch of meat: just ripping and tearing and grunting.

At age five, there’s a genuine reaction to the presents. She has thought about what she wanted, and she’s excited to find out whats in the bag or underneath the wrapping paper. But I’ve noticed something, a pattern in the opening of presents.

Treadmills and Hamster Wheels.

In my master’s program, we learned about something called the Hedonic Treadmill. Because I am a pretentious asshole who nevertheless tries to pretend I am not a pretentious asshole, I don’t use that term. Instead, I call it the “Pleasure Hamster Wheel”.

The idea is simple. Human beings seek pleasurable experiences. Its why we love candy or playing with our smart phones. However, pleasure is essentially fleeting. Thirty seconds after you eat some candy the pleasure is gone.

It’s easy to get moving on seeking the next pleasurable moment. Thus the treadmill, er, hamster wheel. You go around seeking pleasure but never make any true progress towards feeling better.

So when Olivia rips open a gift now, the pleasure hit of that first present is obvious. She has built up excitement, and she is effusive upon receipt. She exclaims “I always wanted [that thing]”.

This continues usually for present #s two and three. By the fourth or fifth, it has almost become a slog to open and summon up some sort of reaction. She gets ruder- less likely to say thank you to the giver. Automatic systems have taken over, and she starts to power through gifts.

Diffuse is Better

This time of year, if you have any means than it is pretty hard to avoid a gift opening smorgasbord. But perhaps you should. Perhaps its ok to spread birthday presents out a bit even if it means letting your kid think they are a special person for more than one day a year.

Maybe modern Jews, as usual, have it right with the whole “eight gifts in eight days” thing. Pleasure, like all things except hugs, is good in moderation.