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For years I’ve had this joke about the second Sunday in May that few people get and even fewer people find funny. The joke is that it’s National Apostrophe Anxiety Day. Is it Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day?
Well, it turns, the joke’s on me: The apostrophe moved!
The story goes back to 1868, when Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia proposed a Mothers’ Friendship Day in Grafton, West Virginia, to reunite families separated by the Civil War. As Ralph LaRossa, a sociologist at Georgia State, explains in this history, Jarvis’s goal was to expand the holiday to all mothers, so she used the plural Mothers’ instead of the singular Mother’s.
She didn’t get her wish. By the following decade, the term already shifted to the singular. The earliest citation of Mother’s Day in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from June 3, 1874, in the New York Times. From then on, Mother’s Day was an occasion to celebrate our own mothers, not all mothers.
However you spell it, Mom’s Special Day is variously a source of joy, reverence, togetherness, bittersweetness, sadness, and, for many, stress. A big source of stress is what to buy because, of course, Americans have turned the day into a binge of commercialism. The National Retail Federation said last week that Americans are expected to spend $31.7 billion this Mother’s Day, which translates into $246 per person. Greeting cards top the list, followed by flowers and meals out. Forty-one percent of consumers plan to spend a record $7 billion on jewelry this year, up 20 percent from last year.
I’m sure lots of moms will appreciate these gifts. But they’re not likely to remember them.
Because what moms actually want is much simpler.
Moms want happy families. Or at least happier families. Or at least one day—or one outing, or one experience, or one get-together—where everybody gets along, makes positive memories, and, preferably, takes a picture.
“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”
By contrast, giving experiences creates more long-lasting effects. A study Gilovich published in 2014, along with Amit Kumar and Lily Jampol, found that “experiential purchases provide greater satisfaction and happiness.”
The reasons: 1) Experiences are social; they bring people together. In the case of mom, the gift doesn’t just involve her alone; it involves the entire family. 2) Experiences form a bigger part of a person’s identity. Give mom a card, and she thinks (if you’re lucky) that it’s funny or sweet or thoughtful. Give mom a family cooking class or a sailing outing or a way to collects family stories, and she thinks, I’m part of a family that cooks or sails or collects family stories. 3) Experiences are evaluated in terms of the feelings they generate as opposed to the status they give.
As Gilovich put it, “Turns out people don’t like hearing about other people’s possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend.”
The social benefits of experiences cannot be overemphasized.
Cindy Chan of the University of Toronto and her colleague, Cassie Mogilner of UCLA, found that experiential gifts are more effective than material gifts at improving relationships.
"The reason experiential gifts are more socially connecting is that they tend to be more emotionally evocative," Chan said.
"An experiential gift elicits a strong emotional response when a recipient consumes it—like the fear and awe of a safari adventure, the excitement of a rock concert, or the calmness of a spa—and is more intensely emotional than a material possession."
If you do give a material gift, she says, you should consider giving one that reminds the recipient of an experience you shared, like learning to make that recipe, taking a trip, or surviving that storm that knocked the lights out for a weekend. Chan calls these emotional material gifts and says they, too, can strengthen relationships.
As Timothy Bono, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, summarized the research, “Across the board, experiences seem to bring greater happiness than material goods. What's key is that the exact type of experience be tailored to the kind of relationship you have with that other person, as well as their individual tastes.” So don’t give an acrophobe a skydive, and don’t give a pet hater a family dog.
But whatever you give, remember that the material gift, the emotional material gift, or even the experiential gift is not really what Mom wants.
Mom wants a happy family, which is the one gift you cannot buy.
You can only make.
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cover image ©Vadym Petrochenko via Canva.com