Frank Capra’s beloved Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a story of a man desperate for money who attempts to end his life by stepping off a bridge so his life insurance policy can be paid out. He is ultimately stopped by a guardian angel, who shows him what his community would be like if he was never born.
With the help of the angel, George Bailey realizes that performing public service, instead of maximizing wealth, made his life more enriching than the “richest man in town.”
The enduring popularity of the film in Canada and the United States is a reminder that, despite the love of great sales and gift-giving over the holidays, there may be more meaningful ways to enjoy the holiday season.
As reported in a 1992 Journal of Consumer Research paper by academics Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson, people who highly value possessions and their acquisition tend to score lower on scales that measure life satisfaction, in comparison to people who prize interpersonal relationships over financial security, even after controlling for income.
Materialism not only comes at the cost of your wealth, but also your identity. Canadian philosopher Jan Zwicky wrote that choosing to live under the premise that “money is the answer” limits your range of possible behaviours, and German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote that “status quoism” — basing “how to live, with whom, where, what to do, and what to believe” on what most people around you do — is an abdication of autonomy.
But it’s not easy to escape consumerism — the “preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary — which is the manifestation of materialism in thoughts and behaviour. Firms employ two techniques to encourage the consumption of goods, Jonah Sachs wrote in WIRED: “inadequacy marketing” and “empowerment marketing.”
Inadequacy marketing, wrote Sachs, is advertising skewed to tell you that some part of you or your life is inadequate, and that buying a product or service will alleviate you of your inadequacy. A newer and increasingly popular approach is called empowerment marketing, which reminds you of your potential, and frames the purchase of a product or service as a means to unlock your potential.
Yet as Richins and Dawson have shown, the pursuit of material objects is not the best way to feel that your life is adequate or enjoyable — indeed, consumerism can promote the idea that you never have enough, that you never are enough.
If self-betterment and empowerment are unlikely results from consumerism, then perhaps, as the angel showed Bailey, we might unintentionally find them through bettering our community, and finding enriching interpersonal relations in the process.
So how can we get outside and help our community?
Short-term: little to no barrier to entry
1. Donating blood or platelets to Canadian Blood Services
You can potentially help cancer patients, recipients of organ transplants, and victims of vehicular collisions by donating blood or platelets to Canadian Blood Services, a non-profit. You can find information on if you’re eligible to donate, where to go, and how to donate at https://myaccount.blood.ca/.
2. Writing an op-ed to a newspaper, or writing to your local representative
If you’ve become aware of an issue affecting your community, you can raise awareness about it and suggest potential solutions by penning a letter to your city councillor and advocate for change. You can also draw attention to the issue and possible solutions by pitching an opinion-editorial — an evidence-based persuasive essay — to your local newspaper, such as the Toronto Star, or if your concern is local to U of T, The Varsity.
3. Volunteering with Second Harvest, a charitable organization that distributes excess stocks of food
Though the short-term volunteering opportunities for December have already passed, Second Harvest has listed positions available for 2019. Such positions include food preparation, outreach, and fundraising. Long-term volunteer positions may also be available for application.
Medium-term: requires an application and vulnerable sector screening
While you wouldn’t be able to get started volunteering over winter break, these weeks may be an ideal time to prepare an application for a non-profit you may be interested in helping at.
1. Volunteering in palliative care
I’ve been a volunteer with Hospice Toronto, a charitable organization that intends to lessen the pain and suffering of clients with terminal illness, since last autumn. It’s not an easy position, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the most important and transformative experiences I’ve ever chosen to do.
2. Visiting clients in long-term care
A significant problem facing the elderly is isolation, and possibly resulting depression, due to a loss of connection with old friends, and potential difficulty forming new relationships. Volunteering as a visitor or events organizer can ease their loneliness.
3. Receiving calls in a distress centre
While it is a mistaken belief that suicide rates spike around Christmas, rates of clinical depression have been rising in Western society. Speaking to someone in a time of crisis may help them see an alternative perspective on their situation and find the supports they need to live a better life.
Long-term: requires a development of skills over time
1. Investing in your future.
It’s hard to help others if you can’t account for yourself. You can use this break to strategize about getting better at coursework or maintaining your performance. You can also develop practical skills such as coding or language learning, which may later prove useful in not only your employment, but also in helping causes in your community. You can achieve all this with the computer and internet connection you likely already have — no additional purchases required.
As some of the most personally rewarding roles aren’t advertised, I advise you to think and reflect on what you value the most in your community, and to reach out to people or organizations who might benefit from your current skill set as additional possibilities. You can also think of ways to better your present skill set.