Joyous ReunionCpl. Colton Duran hugs his wife Cathia during a return ceremony at the squadron’s hangar aboard Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Stephen T. Stewart / U.S. Marine Corps)

For the first time in history retail sales on Black Friday topped $1 billion as millions of Americans began their holiday gift shopping early — and in earnest. But the momentum didn't stop there as Cyber Monday saw a 30 percent increase in sales over last year.

At first blush this looks like pretty good news. If nothing else it would seem to indicate that consumer confidence is growing, even though by most accounts a broader economic turnaround is still a distant dream. On the other hand, such increased spending — as well-intentioned as it may be — could simply be an indication of an on-going and potentially unhealthy consumerism that is forever seeking solace in the latest, greatest gadget.

I say "unhealthy" not because gift-giving itself is bad but because the media-driven desire to buy this or that can cause considerable stress, particularly if the cost is beyond our present means or the desire is left unsatisfied.

While most of us consider stress no less a part of the holidays than Santa Claus and mistletoe — unavoidable but essentially harmless — medical research paints quite a different picture. In fact, some studies indicate that stress accounts for between 60 and 90 percent of all visits to the doctor and acts as the precursor to a variety of more serious health issues.

The underlying problem, of course, is not one of material lack. If it were, we'd see doctors prescribing fewer drugs and more widescreen TVs. It is, instead, a kind of spiritual void that would have us believe that happiness is to be found in things, that our worth is measured in terms of material possessions, and that this void can only be filled with more spending.

This is not to say that buying fewer Gameboys and Furbys will make us happier and healthier. (I mention this in case anyone reading this column has already bought me a Furby for Christmas). Over the years, however, I've found that it's the simpler gifts that are the most meaningful.

I remember a time during my first trip to Nepal over a decade ago when my hosts greeted me with a garland of marigold flowers. To this day I keep it inside a small earthenware pot as a reminder of what it means to give what you have to another, no matter how simple or insignificant it may seem.

This offering was accompanied by my host saying, "Namaste," along with a slight bow of the head and hands pressed together in front of the heart — an outward expression of the belief that there is a divine spark residing in each one of us. Although I'm not accustomed to greeting people this way, I do make it a habit of seeing the God-given good in others, even if I don't share this sentiment as often or as visibly as I might like.

As it turns out, even the simplest expression of gratitude — even the slightest acknowledgement that we are loved — has been proven to have a significant impact on our health.

Whether or not this sort of thing will have any impact on the national economy remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that these gifts from the heart are by far the most readily available, the most lasting — the least expensive — and the most enriching.

Eric NelsonEric Nelson is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. His articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications.

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Namaste...& thank you.

i have adopted an approach to Christmas. Before I do anything, I stop to feel the goodness and love that is already so tangible during this season, So I am not trying to create a feeling of goodness with a gift or card or any other activity, but I am seeking to express the peace, joy, goodness and harmony that I am already feeling and want to share. If I can stay in that sense of harmony and love, then I am also guided by it. Maybe one day I will be lead to test my patience in a Black Friday Frenzy. But for now, I am enjoying the sweet season of peace and joy, and am being led to find wonderful expressions of love in places where I can remain in that frame of mind/soul and be more in touch with the Love that is all around me. Thanks for the article Eric!

Therein lyes the paradox, that Consumer Confidence tied to an increased embracing of Consumer Capitalism / consumption, while fueling a happy economy, overshadows that happiness is attained by simply giving to others.

I loved the picture of the returning troop from the war zone. His wife looked spectacularly elated. It was a very encouraging picture. I also enjoyed your article on the holiday season. I liked the better health part. The gratitude for good health is a very important aspect of being healthy.

Wonderful, thought-provoking article that reaches to the depths of our cultural/moral/cross-denominational issues and dilemmas----a gift for everyone.

Thank you Eric for this gift and for all you are doing for us all.

Hi Eric...having been on that same trip to Nepal, I, too, well remember the marigold flower chain and have a photo of Kula (my porter) making the garland for me at a lunch stop near with you, for me, it's those simple acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that seem the most endearing and long-lasting as memories.
Eager to hear about your lastest Nepal adventure!!