Five Ways to Get the Gift Right

By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | December 15, 2014 | 0 comments

Do presents make you anxious? Here are research-based techniques to help bring joy back into the holidays.

Christmahannukwanzadan is coming! Does anything about that make you anxious?

The holidays are supposed to be a joyous occasion, but they can also be stressful. Thinking about gifts can especially involve both ticklish anticipation and dread. How many people are on your list? Can you get them all things they’ll adore, without breaking your bank? What if one of your otherwise-thoughtful gifts is met with shrouded disappointment?

Science can help! Here are five research-based techniques that can help ease the stress, and bring the joy back into exchanging gifts.

1. Think about the good times

We often think of empathy in terms of reactions to other’s distress, but evidence shows that we’re built to share positive states, too.

So before heading out to shop, spend a few moments reliving “good times” with the people on your list. Try to reflect upon the last—or the most memorable time—you felt positive empathy with them. What were you doing? What could you offer that could promote that experience again, or something similar? Maybe the answer is quick and easy: a hula-hoop, new hiking socks, tickets to a comedy show? Maybe it’s not, because you haven’t spent much time with the person (e.g., your adolescent nephew).

If you need help, reach out to someone who is close to your giftee, ask them to tell you about a “good time” they shared with him or her, and draw inspiration from that. Then, when you are in the midst of gift giving, remind your giftees about the shared memories that inspired your gift—because as a recent study suggests, sharing emotions with others is inherently pleasurable and they’re likely to like the gift even more.

2. Take their perspective

Another strategy is to deliberately perspective-take—that is, to put yourself in the shoes of your giftees and see the world through their eyes.

Before buying anything, take a few moments to jot down what you know the person on your list likes, what they like to do, and what they are good at doing. What’s their favorite color? How do they spend their free time? Now, channeling their likes and skills, what would you be interested in doing, doing more of, or learning to do—if you were them? A blossoming baker? Cooling rack. A weekend adventurer? A headlamp. Beginner at tennis? Tennis balls. You may need to consult some experts if they’re into something you know little about.

Again, the important thing is to stay in their shoes—and resist the urge to get them something you think they should like or be interested in.

3. Focus on experiences, not things

Research from Tom Gilovich at Cornell shows that people experience greater long-term satisfaction from investing in experiences than from accumulating material possessions. People remember and treasure experiences more readily than things, and feel better about having spent on experiences than on things over the long term.


Newer studies suggest that people feel more grateful for experiences than things. The way our minds and memories work, we adapt to things, but build rich narratives around experiences that in part, define the very fabric of who we are. This doesn’t mean you should limit your gifts to hand scrawled IOUs for hot air balloon rides (though that sounds pretty fun). But as you empathize and perspective-take for gift ideas, add the experiential opportunities that your gift could provide to the equation. To sweeten the deal, think of a gift experience that you can share with your giftee!       

4. When exchanging gifts, be mindful!

What happens if your gift fails to please?

This can be heartbreaking, especially if you invested a lot of emotional energy or money in the gift. You may also find yourself disappointed in gifts to you! The solution is the same in both cases: mindfulness.

During gift exchanges, try to dedicate some attention to staying positive, appreciative and “in the moment.” Positive emotional experiences are the intended goal of the gift exchanging, particularly pro-social states like affection and gratitude. Pro-social states have a track record of health benefits in the body and mind—and lead to behaviors that strengthen social capital like trust and cooperation.

Though reflexive and sometimes unavoidable, negative states like disappointment, obligation, and jealousy are not particularly useful during gift exchanges. Better to notice them coming on, decide to let them go— and then consciously turn toward emotions that will help bind you back together. Being “in the moment,” enables you to deliberately savor the experience at hand and connect with the person that has given you a gift, or received a gift from you.

5. Avoid perfectionism

Too often, we adopt a perfectionist mindset—that is, insurmountable expectations about how gifts (given or received) should feel. This might stem from our most primal childhood memories of discovering that coveted toy under semi-torn wrapping!

But trying to recapture that perfect childhood moment can drive dissatisfaction in adulthood. Gift exchanges can feel competitive, with stifling pressure to give the perfect, most impressive gift even among friends and family. Barry Schwartz’s research on maximizing vs. satisficing shows that people who are good at “satisficing”—that is, making the best of things, and thus enjoy greater happiness and resilience.

So when getting gifts, try to apply a self-compassionate lens to soften perfectionist expectations. Don’t worry about whether your gift is perfect. Scientific research shows that self-compassion improves personal well-being and social functioning—and that people who are more relaxed and content are more well-liked by others. 

In short, the surest path to a happy holiday is to focus on relationships and experiences—not the gifts!

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About The Author

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.

  

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