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It’s the season of festive tissue and bows strewn in merriment, of the quest to pick the perfect present. For many, exchanging gifts is an important part of holiday magic. Indeed, research has found that gift giving strengthens social ties, enhances well-being, and can even make us healthier and happier. Yet, there’s so much to learn about how to gift well. Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She and others share advice on choosing a terrific gift and giving and receiving with joy.

Gift Giving Tips

Give The Gift They Want

“Always ask people what they want,” says Dunn, author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. “You can also just be a good recipient by making a little list of like five things you’re most hoping for this year and sharing it with your your family…In essence, don’t expect people to read your mind.” In the essay The Social Psychology of the Gift,” psychologist Barry Schwartz explores gifts as an identity marker for both the giver and the receiver. However, multiple studies conclude that recipients were more likely to appreciate a gift when it was something they requested. 

Consider Gifting “Time”

“What we see in our data is that people feel guilty buying themselves time because buying time means paying somebody else to do something that you are capable of doing yourself. That’s why I think gifting time is a really good gift because it’s not something people necessarily get for themselves. But our research shows that buying time can be good for happiness,” says Dunn. Consider hiring someone to mow the recipient’s lawn, clean their house, or babysit their kids.

Or, you can do it for them. But then make it happen. Dunn says research shows shorter deadlines are better. Don’t just make this a big offer. Similar to how best to follow through on one of those homemade “coupon books” that includes, for example, one garage cleaning or a homemade dinner. Pick a date now and put it on the calendar. “It’s a great gift if you don’t have a lot of money and you’re trying not to go into debt.”

Gift Experiences

“There is evidence that experiences may make better gifts than things,” says Dunn. A study from Cornell University supports this. Concert tickets, a special meal, classes – You may even want to go with them to the event. Spending time with a good friend amps up the enjoyment for both the giver and the recipient. A well-received gift reconfirms, improves, or establishes our connection with others. Connecting and building stronger experiences with the people we care about and creating meaningful experiences is a happiness booster.

Give Gifts To The People You Love Most 

In “Prosocial Spending and Well-BeingDunn and her colleagues show that in rich and poor countries alike, human beings tend to feel happier when giving a gift to someone else rather than buying something for themselves. People feel happiest when they’re generous to the people they are closest to.This gifting strengthens commitment to interpersonal relationships, especially romantic ones.

  • A gesture of giving or receiving generosity.

    Generosity. Illustration by Marina Muun.

Gift Mutal Well-Being

According to your brain circuits and hormone systems, giving feels good. 

Generous behavior produces pleasurable feelings, including stimulating the neurocircuits involved in reward (parts of the brain called the mesolimbic reward system), the same circuits activated by eating, receiving money, and sex. 

Generosity is also linked to improved psychological health, happiness, well-being, greater vitality, self-esteem, cooperation, social connection, and improved physical health, including boosts to the immune system, reductions in blood pressure, and decreased stress. Synchronous singing, awe, wonder, nature, moving in synch, watching others do good deeds, and engaging with media (television, music, video games, etc.) with prosocial messages can all inspire generosity. Even planning to spend money on another person enhances activity in the areas of the brain that link altruism and happiness.

“It’s the warm glow effect,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness expert and Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, “When we’re being kind or witnessing kindness, you kind of feel like we’re all in it together. You know, we’re all human, all interdependent. You just feel good about the world.”

You Don’t Have To Break The Bank  

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, Americans will spend $932 on gifts this year. However, research shows that spending as little as five dollars on a recipient can make the giver happier. The joy of giving and receiving isn’t equated with how much the gift cost. 

Just make sure it’s something the receiver wants. Receiving a gift we like can release pleasurable chemical responses in the brain, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. But if the receiver doesn’t like the present, it can be detrimental to the relationship. 

Gift Well, Not Excessively

Thwart the hedonic treadmill—research shows that people adapt to positive experiences. If you give excessively, there’s a critical barrier to raising happiness. “Try giving gifts that don’t do just one thing, so [the receiver] doesn’t get bored,” says Lyubomirsky citing examples of an iPad, bicycle, or even a doll that fosters creativity because you can play with them in numerous ways.

A Gift Card: The Happy Compromise

Money appreciated as a gift depends on how much money is valued by the recipient. A gift card can have the flexibility of cash but is meant to be spent as a gift.

Witness The Joy Of Receiving

“We see in our work that people are more likely to feel joy in giving when they can either directly observe or vividly imagine how their generosity is actually making a difference for the recipient… it’s important to bear witness to the delight of receiving,” says Dunn. If you’re miles apart, she suggests taking a quick video of you or your children opening the gift to capture that little expression of delight.

Karen Wood, the founder of the celebrity gifting service Backstage Creations, has noticed that “Some people have a hard time receiving.” Indeed, some receivers feel uncomfortably indebted. Or they insulted as if the giver is suggesting the receiver can’t afford to take care of themselves. “Learn how to receive graciously. Otherwise, you’re not providing that joy to the other person.”

Express Gratitude To One Another

“People love hearing expressions of gratitude, like the old-fashioned tradition of thank you notes. There is some good psychological wisdom in that tradition,” says Dunn offering advice to receivers. If you’re the giver, maybe take a second to explain why you chose that gift and thank them for what they’ve done over the year. “I’m very into efficiency…But there is value to be had, during the holidays, in slowing down for a minute. And instead of just trying to cross everybody off your list, take pleasure in that experience of giving and recognize that giving isn’t just something on our to-do list. It’s something that’s a fundamental component of the human experience. And we can take a few minutes to savor the pleasure of being able to give to others.”