I hate to think I'm jumping on the holiday blog bandwagon but, here it is, my one and only blog this holiday season. I don't have the top 10 tips for avoiding holiday stress (although I've included resources at the end of this article) but I do want to take a look at the art and psychology of gift giving- no doubt a major contributing factor to the stress of the season.

In the interest of self-disclosure, I celebrate the holidays casually, which is to say I celebrate secularly and in a way that's meaningful for me at the time. That meaning may change from year to year. For instance, this month is about winding down from a busy year and connecting with the stillness I need before starting some fresh projects in 2013. In years where I spend more time with friends and family, it's about joyfully celebrating those relationships with all the excitement of gift-giving and over-indulgence in junk food. And in other years, it could be a celebration of the turn of the season- connecting with nature and our source. More often than not, it's a bit of all the above.

Several people have informed me that this year they'll be giving me gift cards for Christmas; at which point they each asked me, "Where do you want it from?" Don't get me wrong, I'm very much grateful that they want to send me a gift of any sort. Gift cards are certainly a practical choice and I put them to good use. But it's also true that when redeeming them I notice myself feeling an obligation to report back to the giver on what I purchased. I then wish I’d purchased something more creative than a 24-pack of toilet paper at Target. It's as though I take on the giver's holiday shopping stress for them until I'm ready to report back on how nice it is to have such a large stockpile of bathroom tissue. They’ll feel relieved and the loop gets closed for another 12 months.

Gift cards started coming into fashion in the 1990s. Ever since we've heard how they're so much easier than trying to find that perfect gift. How we can reduce our stress and avoid the crowds. As though showing someone our affection with a thoughtful gesture has become the burden of modern man. Now I'm all for reducing stress and anxiety, but doesn't it seem like everything these days is about stress reduction? Doesn’t it send the message that if it's not easy we should avoid it? I believe it's a valid point to examine when we truly need a break from difficult decision making (obsessing over the "perfect" gift) vs. when we're just too tired to think or downright lazy. Perhaps the gift card is just a tiny plastic representation of our culture’s larger lifestyle disease: stress and avoidance.

The essence of gifting is about the offering of a gesture that recognizes the recipient. The act of the gifting has a "selfish" component and a "selfless" component, in that we feel something when giving and they feel something when receiving. Ideally those feelings are mutually positive but we do tend to feel some risk in the process. As the giver we probably feel some anxiety in wondering if we're gifting accurately, sufficiently, and on-time. As recipients we feel some anxiety about what's under that wrapping paper, how we'll react when we see it, being in the spotlight, and perhaps how we will reciprocate later. Along with the anxiety there are plenty of other physical and emotional responses we may experience such as gratitude, joy, relief, regret, disappointment, and a shift in our connectedness with each other in that moment. Gifting is complex.

But then gift cards came along and solved all our problems! In my opinion - and I know people have strong opinions about these little widgets - gift cards have flattened out the act and emotion of gifting. And unless the dollar amount on the card is substantially and shockingly higher or lower than what the recipient might have expected, the emotional responses I described above tend to be dulled. As recipients, rather than feeling a "Wow!" response it's probably safe to say most of us feel an "Oh, that's nice." response. How we choose to exhibit our response externally is a different matter.

Does that suggest that as givers we must always strive to induce that "Wow!" response? Or is “good enough” good enough? Is there anything inherently wrong with a pleasant but predictable gift like a gift card? To answer, we need to ponder the purpose for gifting in the first place. And this is where gifting seems to have lost its way. One must examine whether he is gifting out of love or gifting out of obligation.

The questions I pose are: How do we truly want to recognize the person we are gifting? How will this act of gifting affect the connection between us? Is it possible that gift cards are yet another way that we've become less personal and less connected to one another?

“Connection?”, some of you might be thinking. "Give me a gift card over some crappy gift anyday! Cold hard cash is something I can really connect with!" I completely understand that it can be wasteful and anxiety inducing to receive a dust-collecting plastic tchotchke. And a gift card is undoubtedly more eco-friendly than a big plastic something that's packaged in a lot of plastic something else. But if gifting is about expressing a sentiment and a connection, can we really not do any better? Save for a certain situations that I'll mention in a moment, what are we conveying?

I believe that holidays, if we choose to celebrate them, are opportunities to express our genuine connection to one another. The great national gift card exchange just doesn't convey much more than monetary value. We’re relieved if we've gifted an amount that's comparable to what we've received. A card for a card, plastic cash for more plastic cash.

By the numbers, this cash swap is serving a huge demand and I do agree that they can be a very helpful solution for tricky situations. According to the National Retail Federation, the predicted spending on gift cards this year is $28.79 billion. And nearly 60% of the respondents to their October 2012 gift card poll claimed they'd actually like to receive gift cards this year. Interestingly, "21.1% of gift givers say they’ll buy gift cards because they are easier and faster than traditional gifts" whereas "44.7 percent say they’ll buy gift cards because they allow the recipient to select their own gift."*

As I said, they make sense in certain situations. For instance, we may not know a co-worker very well, yet feel genuinely happy for them when they get married. The hand blender on their gift registry seems about as personal as a box of saltine crackers, so a gift card with a heartfelt note can't be beat. It's not being lazy and it's more than just practicality. The same goes for kids who are in that difficult-to-gift age when their tastes and interests change with the flick of a t.v. channel.

Yet with nearly $30 billion dollars being spent annually on gift cards, what’s this really all about? Are we being more lazy than thoughtful? Are we forgetting the true meaning of gifting and reducing the gesture down to a mundane process? Can’t we do better? I advocate for spending less and meaning more. I vote for letting go of the fear, guilt, anxiety, obligation, and yes, complacency when it comes to gifting. And for bringing back the enjoyment of recognizing one another with thoughtful expression. If gifting isn't enjoyable and heart-centered, I do sometimes wonder why we bother.

Positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener has described how before each of his client sessions, he takes a few moments to meditate on the positive qualities of his client. I think it would serve us well to adopt that activity when gifting. Taking some time to sit and visualize each person we’re buying for, not struggling to come up with a gift idea, but just thinking about his qualities as a person. A time to perhaps sit with the question of why it is that we genuinely want to gift him, rather than what we should gift him. Or, make it a time to think in broader terms about what kind of gesture would celebrate the season, the year-end, and new beginnings. Being in the moment with that kind of thoughtfulness is probably going to make the gesture much more meaningful for us as givers- not to mention for them as receivers.        continued...

In the end, if we find ourselves short of ideas, the gift cards will always be there. We can include with the card a personal note about how much that person means to us and that our gift is a recognition of her as a person, not just a plastic rectangle with no thought attached. We can doodle on the envelope so it's more personalized. Get creative and get personal. My intent is not to critcize those who prefer gift cards, but to look at them from a different perspective and perhaps help avoid some unintended consequences. Those plastic cards are still an option, but there's a bigger opportunity here to put thought into the message we're really trying to convey.


The stress of gifting is just one of the many stressors that are serious concerns for so many people during the holidays. Here are some additional resources for coping in healthy ways:

Cleveland Clinic: Managing Holiday Stress 

Mayo Clinic: Reality vs. myth in fighting holiday stress

National Alliance on Mental Illness: Coping with the Holidays

American Psychological Association: Stress in America: Our Health at Risk

*Source: http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=News&op=viewlive&sp_id=1451

[If you think you or a loved one would benefit from additional support this holiday season, it only takes a moment to search for a nearby mental health provider using Psychology Today’s Find A Therapist directory.]

About the Author

Brad Waters

Brad Waters, MSW, is a career coach-consultant who helps people clarify career paths, make job transitions, and improve resumes. He holds a master's in social work from the University of Michigan.

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