You’ve likely heard of the five love languages from the 1982 book by Gary Chapman:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Acts of service
  • Gifts
  • Physical touch

Chapman’s argument is that we each express our love and affection in different ways, and we shouldn’t assume that our loved ones demonstrate their affection in the same way that we do. 

All five love languages seem important for healthy relationships, but only gifts are important for capitalism.

A few years ago, IKEA put out a Spanish-language Christmas campaign (with subtitles below) that went viral throughout Spain and Latin America. In the video, a ‘researcher’ asks children what they’d like from Santa Clause for Christmas and they reply with the usual desires: toys, video games, clothes. Then they are asked what they want from their parents: more time together, cuddling, a game of soccer. And finally the researcher asks the children if they could only send one letter, which would it be. Of course, they choose quality time with their parents over the latest toy from Santa. This makes the parents cry, which makes the viewer also tear up because few of us received the genuine affection we sought from our parents.

While our parents may not have met our needs for attention and affection, marketers succeeded in convincing us that a $25,000 watch (or a $100 pair of shoes, or the latest video game console) is an easy substitute. We may want to feel understood. We may want honest, genuine conversation. Or even just a good hug. But we’ll settle for an Amazon gift card. 

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Long before the first cases of COVID, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a book about the US loneliness epidemic as the root cause of alcohol and drug addiction, violence, depression and anxiety — the so called “deaths of despair” that are the main forces lowering the average life expectancy over the past five years (more so than deaths from COVID). 

How are we more lonely as a nation, when we have more money to spend and it is easier to meet, connect, and communicate with people than ever before? 

In short, America is different from most other countries. We are more individualistic. Our sense of self depends on achievement and competitiveness over community and solidarity. We are more focused on becoming the type of ‘successful person’ who can gift a Patek Philippe watch or Tiffany’s bracelet than spending a Saturday playing soccer in the city park. 

We know this, yet it is such a powerful cultural force to resist against. Anyway, it is time for me to go play with some friends. And then finish wrapping Christmas presents. In all things, moderation. Right?

An addendum: I loved the impromptu message of Chile’s 35-year-old new president (also in Spanish):

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