Do Happier Parents Buy Less?

12/14/2011 10:35 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2012

Let's face it: New Yorkers are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to holiday shopping. That's right, I said disadvantage. Because while we may have access to most of the latest and greatest stuff on the planet, we just don't have the space to bring it home with us -- which can get a little tricky for parents during the gift giving season.

As an Upper West Side mother of two put it: there's no way we can possibly compete with the amount kids get in the suburbs. New Yorkers just don't have the room to store all those new (and old) toys -- but it turns out we're actually happier for it in the long run.

So how do New Yorkers manage to make the holidays just as special for their children, dial down the stress for themselves, and buy less stuff?

We Give Smarter

People who study the economics of happiness talk about the hedonic treadmill -- the idea that human beings adapt pretty quickly to a new consumer good. For instance, you may absolutely love your new bag when it comes, but the novelty wears off, and before you know it, you're online cruising for a new one.

Kids acclimate too. If they have tons of toys, they'll (quickly) expect -- tons of toys. In fact, Dr. Susan Samuels, pediatrician and assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City told me: "Too many gifts can be over-stimulating for children." She reminds parents this month: less is generally more.

And boy, are New Yorkers pros at finding that "perfect" present every year. When the "list" is only one or two items long, it's easier to focus on what will really add to your child's play environment and enjoyment for the longest period of time possible (the most bang per square foot) -- not just a pile of things your kid has been trained to ask for. And don't think "perfect" has to come with a hefty price tag. Research shows adults don't care how much someone spent on their gift, and anyone who's ever watched a child play with the wrapping paper knows they're the same way.

There's no question one or two gifts makes more sense for your wallet. Americans may be whipping out the plastic again, but the economy is on shaky ground. I'm still pushing clients with young children to have a nine to 12-month reserve, as opposed to the standard six-month cushion. The more you can save for the future, the better. And the best way to save is to spend less.

We Give Time

New Yorkers certainly lead crazy, fast-paced lives, and the best gift you can give your child during the holiday season is some special personal time rather than a material good. Just as they are for adults, experiences are usually more satisfying than consumer items because they never lose their luster. Experiences never break or lose their pieces. And we don't compare our memories to the Joneses' memories.

Sure, New Yorkers have the Tree and skating in Central Park, but it doesn't have to be as glam as all that. Wherever you live, set aside the next few Saturdays (and your Blackberries!) before the New Year, and create the ultimate family holiday experience instead of shopping: bake cookies, decorate the house, watch a classic movie.

We Give Giving

When it comes to "giving less stuff," grandparents can present a problem. They usually want to send a box of goodies for the holidays, and who can blame them?

But I advise grandparents everywhere to give a meaningful experience over more dolls or more dump trucks. For example, many cities have fantastic children's museums. Why not get your grandkids a one-year membership or pay for a few months of their music lessons?

I also encourage every grandparent to contribute to a college fund over buying stuff this Christmas. A hundred dollars today in a tax deferred college plan could add up to thousands by the time your grandson or granddaughter receives that admissions letter. And I promise everyone will be happier in the long run having purchased part of your grandchild's education (especially your grandchild!).

Dr. Alexandra Spessot, an adult psychiatrist in Durham, North Carolina told me, "in our culture of excess, gifts often become a proxy for achieving happiness for our child." But what if we each choose to define our family's happiness differently?

At the end of the day, think carefully about the message you're sending your child when you spend this holiday season, and what you want to teach your offspring about happiness. For example, my husband and I are proud that New Yorkers are among some of the greenest folks in the country. And the easiest way to live greener is to buy less stuff. And that makes us happy.