[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
These are my 10 rules of gift giving:
1. Don't just give money. Giving money basically sends out the message, "I couldn't be bothered to think too much about you, so here you go, that's what you're worth to me."
2. The monetary value of the gift is unimportant. One of my friends once gave me her recipe for one of my favourite dishes, writing it out in calligraphy on parchment paper, together with an offer to cook it with me. Total monetary value about zero, and yet one of the most charming and thoughtful gifts that I have ever received.
3. It's not the gift, but the thought that counts, so think about your gift carefully. In general, give something that you know the person wants, maybe something that has come up in conversation or something that you have seen the person eyeing or browsing. There are many extra marks to be gained for fun and originality, for instance, the bright yellow fountain pen or the joint massage class.
4. On the whole, prefer experiences to objects. Experiences such as a one-hour Swedish massage or concert tickets are generally more memorable than objects. But don't forget that some objects, such as books and DVDs, can also be experiences—so long as they are well chosen.
5. If the person is pressed for time, give something that doesn't take up much time or, better still, that fills up dead time. One of my friends gave me A History of the World in 100 Objects on audio CDs. This meant that I could listen to it while driving to appointments; instead of a waste of time, driving became my story time.
6. There is great pleasure to be had, both for the recipient and the donor, in the ceremony of slowly unwrapping a gift. Therefore, always wrap the gift, even if it is very small or thin and fits in an envelope. In this case, just wrap the envelope. Choose the envelope and the wrapping paper very carefully and give it all a feel of personalized luxury. For example, I use wrapping paper with butterflies for nature lovers, poets, and fellow psychologists and psychiatrists (the butterfly being the symbol of the soul). All this shows that you took a great deal of time and care over the gift, and value the act of giving more than the gift itself.
7. Always include a thoughtful message with the gift, either on a card or in a letter. Don't just buy one of those cards with a generic message, but compose the message yourself, preferably in some beautiful ink. Use your message to bring to mind shared moments or strong ties, or maybe just to explain your gift or say thank you. In verse form is best, if you are up to that particular challenge! The message should be presented and read before opening the gift.
8. Give something that you yourself can share in, like theatre tickets or a holiday. This shows that you want to spend more time with the person, and also provides you with the perfect excuse to treat yourself!
9. Timing is key. Make sure that you are both happy and relaxed, and that there is plenty of time to slowly unwrap and revel in the gift. For example, after a nice meal is generally a very good time.
10. If the gift can come as a surprise, then all the better. If not, you can still make it a bit of a surprise by double wrapping it or, better still, giving two gifts, the first being a sort of decoy.
In the words of Voltaire,
God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other gifts.