Ask Ariely: On Balancing Birthdays, Valuing Vacations, and Finding Fulfillment

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I am a widow, and my friendships are very important to me. But many of my friends are couples, and each year I end up buying birthday gifts for both the husband and the wife, plus an anniversary gift. While I always get a nice present in exchange on my birthday, the balance of gift-giving seems unfair. Is there a more evenhanded way to exchange gifts?

—Carol 

It’s very hard to shift social norms about gift-giving, especially when a pattern is well established. The best approach might be to try to replace the current norm with a new one. For example, what if you told your friends that you are concerned about the environment and want to try to reduce your level of consumption and waste, so you are planning to start giving cards instead of gifts. Ask them to help you with this commitment by giving you cards in exchange. This way, you would be appealing to a moral principle, rather than telling the that all you are trying to do is to save SOME money.

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Dear Dan,

I’m planning a vacation, and I’m considering a prepaid, all-inclusive resort, so that I won’t have to worry about the cost of every drink and sandwich. But I’m concerned that the all-inclusive package won’t be as good an experience as some of the other, pay-as-you-go options that I’m looking at. Is prepaying always the best choice?

—Saurabh 

You’re certainly right that an all-inclusive resort isn’t always the highest-quality option. But you have to remember that what’s most important is whether you’re going to enjoy the experience you have. Constantly having to make decisions about what to buy can detract from your vacation experience, even if the hotels or restaurants you end up patronizing are of better quality.

In general, when you make a decision, it’s better not to ask “Am I choosing the absolute best option?” Instead, you should consider your enjoyment of the experience as a whole, including your ability to relax and your peace of mind.

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Dear Dan,

I grew up in a working-class household, and I’ve been upwardly mobile in my career, but I’ve recently begun to feel that my job is meaningless. Should I think about my work merely as a way to make money to survive? Or would it be better for me to look for a job that I can take pride in as part of my identity?

—Ella 

The research is very clear that finding meaning in your job is necessary for happiness. At the same time, if too much of your identity is tied up in your job, it can make you more vulnerable to work-related stress. A study conducted in 1995 by Michael R. Frone, Marcia Russell and M. Lynne Cooper found that people who strongly connected their identities with their jobs were much more sensitive to work stressors than those who thought about their work in a more casual and detached way.

Ideally, you should look for work that gives you a sense of pride and meaning, but you should also remember that a job doesn’t define you, and that there are other, equally important parts of your identity.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.