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Wish Lists Shrink, Happiness Expands

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Holiday thrift should be embraced, not lamented.

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No, you can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need.

- The Rolling Stones

The holiday shopping season, aside from being the raison d'être for retailers across the country, serves as a barometer for the whims and fancies of the American consumer.

Whether it's the latest iteration Grant Theft Auto (TTWO), a big screen HDTV, or a sparkling amulet from Zales (ZLC), tallying up December receipts is an easy way to find out what the public deems important. After all, buying stuff is a reflection of the natural human inclination to maximize economic utility - or, in layman's terms, happiness.

For anyone paying attention to recent media reports of empty stores and vacant strip malls, however, it seems Americans are becoming nihilists: We care about nothing.

One can't open the newspaper without reading about some company laying off thousands, postponing new hires, or shutting down altogether. The Grinch, no doubt, is giddy.

But, amidst the dire warnings and grim prognostications, there's hope some of these changes may be for the better.

The New York Times reported this morning that mothers are forgoing purchases for themselves this year to shower their kids with holiday cheer. One young Floridian will receive a new play kitchen and Elmo doll, while her mom makes do with the same old jeans as last year. Denim couturier Diesel will no doubt rue the decision, but Wal-Mart (WMT) will be happy to see Elmo fly off its shelves.

Other parents are taking thrift a step further, gathering like-minded neighbors to swap old toys, DVDs and discarded playthings of holidays past. Some are even resorting to the time-honored tradition of the White Elephant exchange, where gifts are passed around according to numbers drawn from a hat.

These trends may reduce the piles of superfluous electronic gadgets under Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes, but they also encourage thoughtfulness, selflessness and a wholesale rejection of the rampant consumerism that's come to define our country - particularly around the holidays.

This is a welcome trend.

To be sure, Best Buy (BBY) and its ilk could miss profit estimates, and MasterCard (MA) may process fewer transactions, but in the long run, the country will be healthier for it.

Many scientists believe caloric restriction is the only thing that extends life in and of itself. We should eat less, they argue, since a body that processes less will hold up longer. The economy, itself a massive and deeply complex organism, is not dissimilar.

Like the body, it's constantly growing, changing, evolving to adapt to the prevailing environment. Thriving on efficiency and shunning excess, it operates at peak performance when waste is kept to a minimum.

That's not to say there's no place for luxury in an economy - but during recessions, goods and services wanted by too few people simply disappear. Uncompetitive firms die off, making room for new entrepreneurs and innovation.

This cleansing process is what allows an economy to grow healthier and stronger. Sure, we may not get everything on our wish list this year - but maybe you shouldn't always get what you want.

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