Tis’ the season for making merry and giving gifts to kith and kin. Is there is someone in your life—a professional or a student—deserving of a gift this holiday? What should you give? Something naughty or nice or, better yet, something clever but welcome?
Your time. We rarely see those we care about during the normal course of the busy year. Why not make a special but simple date with your friend? Take him or her out for a nice lunch or a good cup of coffee and share yourself—catch up, laugh, swap stories, trade (mild, please) gossip. Some quality time with your pal will be much more welcome than yet another sweater or bottle of cologne or magazine subscription or fragrant candle.
Share an event. Research on happiness flies in the face of our annual holiday potlatch—we are happiest having shared experiences with those we care about, not getting another material thing (which quickly becomes yet another thing in our stash of many things). So, take your psychologist to a good movie (but allow time afterwards to talk about it) or a play or a concert. Get tickets for the two of you to a museum or planetarium or arboretum. Skiing or sledding may be options where you live. If the weather cooperates, go for a hike. Even a nice walk with simple, good conversation can be a rare gift.
Give a good book. The end of the semester is a busy time but the expanse of the holidays means (hopefully!) some down time: Why not give the teacher or student in your life a great book, something that is thoughtful, meaningful, and not lightweight. It could be a psychology classic (e.g., lots of used book stores have early editions of William James’s The Principles of Psychology for not much money) or a non-psychology classic that has psychological overtones (e.g., Montaigne’s Essays is an excellent choice, so is any work Shakespeare, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the Lord of the Rings, for that matter—and I assume most people have read Harry Potter). Or, find out your intended recipient’s favorite author and learn which titles he or she has yet to read (there is almost always, another book by Joyce Carol Oates or Iris Murdoch or John Updike or Philip Roth that even the most avid fan has yet to read). Or consider this: The gloom of the season in many parts of the country can be dispelled with a book of colorful photographs—research on attention restoration theory (ART) suggests being outdoors in green spaces has benefits, but if you can’t do that, a book of gardens (I recommend books on Japanese gardens) is the next best thing to entertain the eye with beauty and rest the mind.
Buy a student’s book. College students spend quite a bit of money on books for their classes. You can be a class act and offer to buy one for the spring term or at least to contribute towards one (some of those hefty science books cost hundreds of dollars), as any amount of money towards a student’s education helps. Caveat emptor: Don’t “surprise” the student by getting a copy online unless you know the right ISBN number or edition—indeed, it might be best to buy a book through the student’s college bookstore or by getting a gift card or certificate there.
What about a pet, preferably a rescue? This choice must be carefully thought out and discussed (and this sort of gift is best not given to a student). But consider how many homeless dogs and cats are out there in shelters or with rescue organizations (there is a rescue group for every breed of dog or cat—just start looking online—if you need a breed, I recommend Chesapeake Bay Retrievers—a friend of mine loves Beagles—you can’t lose). A dog, for example, can make a terrific gift as long as the recipient wants one, can care for one, and has a hand in selecting Rover (hint: never, ever surprise friends with a dog or cat—involve them in the search). If you do give a pet, you will be enriching your friend’s life (affection from Fido, as well as exercise) and saving that of the rescued animal (those Humane Society commercials on TV, while designed to pull on your heartstrings, show the truth—that many animals suffer)—not to mention the warm glow you will feel by doing such good things. You may even want to get a pet yourself!
Donate to a charity in your friend’s name. Most people have causes they support or would like to support. Find out your friend’s interest and make a donation in his or her name (I would avoid politically divisive charities this time of year). It’s quick, easy, and thoughtful, so that your dollars and (good) sense can help a worthy cause and give your friend a feeling of satisfaction.
Your authentic feelings. We don’t tell those who matter to us often enough that they do matter to us. A text, tweet, or email won’t do, nor will a generic holiday letter or a holiday card (though its nice to get either of the latter). I suggest you write a personal letter to someone—white paper, blue or blue-black ink, the whole nine yards. Hardly anyone does this anymore, which means receiving one is an occasion, especially if the writer speaks from the heart and from some distance.
And now it's time for me to settle in for a long winter’s nap. What other good and graceful gift ideas do you have?