The season of gift shopping has arrived. While it’s often a joy to think about giving gifts to the people you love, there’s no doubt that it can be a fraught time as well.
It’s not always easy to figure out the right gift to give. And in looking at how often gifts are returned, it’s clear that we don’t always choose well.
While research has often focused on the benefits of giving for the giver, there are clearly benefits to receivers as well, even beyond the benefits of receiving something you may want or need.
Picking the right kind of gift can increase feelings of appreciation, which in turn help to cement and build important relationships. In fact, that’s often the problem: We forget that the point of a gift is to strengthen a relationship.
Now, some recent research is lending guidance for how to give a gift that maximizes a receiver’s happiness and fosters closer relationships.
Here are some of the key findings and what it means for finding the right gift for the important people in your life.
1. Worry less about the expense or quality — and more about practicality
You would think that the more you spend on a gift, the more someone might appreciate it. But some new research suggests that it’s more the practicality of a gift that matters.
In a recent study, researchers ran serial experiments looking at how close a gift recipient felt to a gift giver — either an acquaintance or closer friend — after receiving an attractive versus a practical gift.
The kinds of gifts considered in the experiments included things like pens (a high-quality pen that was somewhat heavy and impractical versus an ordinary pen that was easily transportable) or restaurant gift certificates (to a trendy but far-away restaurant, versus an ordinary but close-by restaurant).
In some cases, the participants remembered a gift they’d actually received. In other cases, they imagined receiving such a gift.
In every case, people felt closer to someone who gave them a more usable gift than one that seemed fancier.
Though it might seem like the perceived cost of the gift would have made a difference in closeness, it didn’t change the outcome when researchers told participants the two items were the same price.
This finding mirrors past research, which has found that giving an expensive gift isn’t necessarily the way to someone’s heart.
2. Pick a gift that brings longer-term satisfaction rather than initial enthusiasm
Have you ever given a toy to a child only to see them abandon it on the same day? It could be that you were so focused on anticipating their excitement at opening the present that you neglected the importance of finding a gift that brings more happiness over time.
In a series of experiments, researchers looked at how anticipating someone’s response to a gift determined gift choices in different circumstances. In all cases, givers tended to choose gifts based on whether or not they thought the gifts would wow recipients, rather than thinking about happiness over time.
For example, in one experiment, male participants chose a flashier Valentine’s Day gift, like a dozen red roses, over one more satisfying, like a potted rose plant with buds about to open — despite recipients’ preferences, which were often more mixed.
Why would that be? According to the researchers, givers seemed to be interested in eliciting surprise or joy from receivers, perhaps losing touch with the longer-term benefits of a gift: enjoyment over time, not just in the moment.
These findings suggest that when selecting a gift, we should be careful to focus less on creating an emotional splash and more on finding a gift that keeps on giving.
3. Give someone what they’ve asked for
You might think that surprise gifts will delight your friends and family. But research suggests the opposite: They prefer to receive gifts they’ve requested.
In a series of experiments, researchers found that givers tended to overlook gift lists or gift requests, believing that any gift would be equally appreciated by receivers. For their part, recipients preferred gifts they’d requested, which suggests a mismatch of expectations that could affect relationships.
There were some interesting nuances to this research, though. When people requested one big gift, rather than a series of smaller ones — like you might see on a registry — givers were more likely to contribute toward that one gift.
Additionally, though givers thought a monetary gift would be unwelcome, recipients actually appreciated the gift of money.
Of course, givers aren’t willfully disregarding people’s wishes for no reason. They’re likely signaling that they feel close enough to a recipient to not have to be told what gifts to buy. Unfortunately, that kind of mind-reading can go astray.
The bottom line: It really may be better just to honor people’s requests.
4. It’s good to give experiences
Science has shown that people tend to be happier when they receive gifts involving experiences rather than material ones. But when to give experiences may depend on context.
One study found that when you don’t feel very close to a recipient, you’re more likely to pick a material gift. Doing so helps to relieve anxiety about making a wrong choice, since choosing an experience for someone is more personal and implies more closeness.
For people you’re close to, it will likely make you even closer if you choose an experience that is a bit extraordinary.
In a recent study, participants were asked to guess their own reactions to engaging in an extraordinary versus everyday experience to see how it affected their sense of closeness to an acquaintance or close friend.
Examples included things like shopping for black (extraordinary!) versus white (ordinary) toilet paper or shopping for amazing light bulbs for a holiday event versus shopping for ordinary light bulbs for a residence.
In other words, the “extraordinary” activities weren’t awe-inspiring, just a little unusual.
The researchers found that engaging in the more extraordinary experiences brought more feelings of closeness to participants, probably because these kinds of experiences engaged their attention more.
Of course, the experiences in this experiment were not gifts. And they were shared experiences, which probably increases intimacy more than an unshared experience.
However, these findings fit in well with other studies that have found novelty to be beneficial in committed relationships and may provide a clue for how to make experience gifts more effective.
5. Don’t push gifts on someone who doesn’t want them
It may surprise you to know that gift giving isn’t always a positive. A receiver who believes that a giver’s intentions are self-serving or aimed at creating a sense of indebtedness won’t feel much joy or gratitude toward a giver. Even an attractive gift won’t move them.
Of course, givers are not the only ones responsible for making gift exchanges positive. Receivers have a role to play, too, in how willing they are to accept gifts and not deny a giver the pleasure of giving.
In fact, a recent study suggests as much: The willingness to accept a gift may be more important to a receiver’s happiness than either the gift’s value or how they perceive the giver’s intentions.
What does that mean for those of us exchanging gifts? We givers should check that our motives are pure and that we are doing what we can to make sure gifts are wanted.
Though that may be less of an issue in families with a gift-giving tradition, it could be something to consider between friends or colleagues. And, for recipients, it means being open to the joys of receiving, too.
So, in short, try to give gifts that nurture your relationships. Instead of focusing on our own joy at gifting, we can consider what a recipient wants and choose accordingly. Picking gifts that are useful, experiential, or desired, or that keep on giving — without strings attached — will likely make the people on your list feel happier, grateful, and closer to you.
And isn’t that what the holiday season is all about?
Jill Suttie, PsyD, is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.