Saturday was Valentine’s Day. The day gets a bad rap, often deemed the Hallmarkiest of Hallmark holidays (see too: Mother’s day, Father’s day). Well first of all, fuck the haters. It’s my birthday. And now that that’s out of the way: it’s only a “holiday” if you only plan on buying gifts for those you love on one single institutionally preordained day of the year. Boom. Now you feel guilty.
But the claim isn’t exactly inaccurate. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) reveals some fascinating points, least of all that spending this year on Valentine’s Day is projected to be the highest ever, at $18.9 billion. That is, in other words, 11 basis points (hundredths of a percent) of U.S. GDP. All exchanged in chalky hearts (candy makes up of 53.2 percent of purchases), roses (flowers are 37.8 percent), anything the color red (clothing is 16.3 percent) and mandrake roots (OK, not really).
Perhaps more interestingly, the survey reveals some behavioral trends that have taken place. Indeed, since 2007, 13 percent fewer people are celebrating the holiday. Of those celebrating, 18 percent fewer are buying cards for their loved ones, and 23 percent fewer are going “for an evening out.” Well that just doesn’t seem very romantic. Instead, 31 percent more Romeos are buying gift cards. And funny enough, it’s not actually a terrible strategy — for these hunks, it may be the case that Amazon’s recommendation engine legitimately knows what their beaus want more than they do. Bezos, you stallion! Finally, the last piece of data worth considering is one I just find sad: that 56 percent of women plan to celebrate the day, while 53.7 percent of men plan to. Assuming that the numbers of homosexual couples of both genders celebrating are the same, I am so sorry for that 2.3 percent of ladies…
But if we cut the jokes and take a deeper dive into this data, the trends observed really aren’t that shocking. Lovers are more risk-averse since the financial crisis. Millennials seem to be particularly traumatized.
Arthur C. Brooks wrote a wonderful qualitative piece in The New York Times Friday, titled “Taking Risks in Love.” In it, he tells the anecdote of his own hot pursuit of his Spanish wife. The story bears much in common with a rom-com that a Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher or Mila Kunis-Justin Timberlake duo might act in, with a little bit of Woody Allen mixed in for good measure. Brooks quit his job, left his family, learned Spanish, moved to Barcelona, got the girl and lives happily ever after. But the point of the article is not patting himself on the back, but rather asking why he would never be able to pat on his younger colleagues’ backs (or Facebook walls) for doing the same thing. “That’s crazy,” they say, after he tells the fairytale. Cupid got him good. He’s just an old-fashioned, smitten nut. To parse out the intergenerational language barrier — what risks he took for love.
Yet, Brooks’ confusion is a justified (and much publicized) one: why are millennial lovebirds such wimps?
A ton has been written on the subject of love in a digital era. The topic du jour, of course, is Tinder. The headline of another New York Times Valentine’s Day op-ed pretty much sums it up: “On Tinder, Taking a Swipe at Love, or Sex, or Something, in New York.” The popularity of Tinder seems to prove the fact that the extent of “risk” young adults feel comfortable taking, in love (or sex, or something), is limited to four pictures, a name and an age on a profile. If you match, great. If you don’t, who cares; you really only “met” the girl in the time it took to send a motor impulse down to your thumb. It’s certainly a lot less painful than getting rejected on the phone, or in person, or after a flight to Barcelona.
This same sort of “love hedging” exists to a lesser extent with EHarmony, or OKCupid or Farmers Only, or any of the others. Clearly, risk aversion pervades the romantic marketplace as much as it does the financial. Potential pain, anxiety and stress are managed by maintaining a well-diversified portfolio of uncorrelated romantic investments. Eggs are spread between baskets.
It’s prospect theory all over again: losses hurt a whole lot more than gains heal. Loss avoidance is prioritized over the pursuit of gain. Per the survey: a gift card and a movie at home provide a lot more wiggle room during conversational awkward pauses than does the time between appetizer and entrée at a restaurant. Calamity avoided.
Now back to Brooks’ question: why are we such wimps? Well, in retrospect, it seems pretty obvious — it’s actually far more rational to be wimpy. Shells are the best form of protection, particularly when we have enough stresses and strains on our plates already. Especially following what we witnessed happen to the country during the financial crisis. Vulnerability and its symptoms are, amidst overworked lives in school and in the office, insensibly risky. The means of desire are far less desirable than the ends.
From personal experience, though, love is far from rational (believe me, I’ve tried to “understand” why some things have happened the way they have). So is this rational approach really a way to find love, rather than satisfy lust? As Sam Smith laments in the best song of the year: “Guess it’s true I’m not good at a one night stand / but I still need love ‘cause I’m just a man / Deep down I know this never works / But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt.”
Apparently, people feel that.
But what to do about it? Who knows. Keep bumping uglies, and maybe one of these nights we’ll run into dates for next Valentine’s Day. Or maybe we won’t.
In either case, keep swiping right. It’s only rational, after all.
Eli Cahan can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.