Gifts for the Self this Holiday Season

Good giving grounded in psychological science.

Posted Dec 03, 2018

Well, final exams will begin for many students shortly—and then the much anticipated holiday break. Many students will have a couple weeks, others almost a month, to get much-needed rest and relaxation after the busy fall term. During the December holidays, gift giving abounds, and most students can expect to receive some nice presents from kith and kin. But what can they give themselves during their long break?

That’s right—what about giving a gift to oneself this holiday? What might that be like? First, if nothing else, research in positive psychology shows that people tend to prefer having experiences instead of gaining material goods. Indeed, money and materialism don’t lead to happiness, but going to a play, seeing a concert, heading out to a movie is pat to be much more satisfying than getting more clothes or a new gadget or obtaining some trinkets that will soon be forgotten among all your other belongings.

So, one “self-gift” might be to go do something during the holidays. There are usually plenty of holiday pageants and plays being performed, so attending one of those might be fun. If you’ve already had your fill of It’s a Wonderful Life or you’ve attended more performances of A Christmas Carol than you can count, then do something less seasonal—consider visiting an art museum or a natural history museum. You can while away the hours looking at paintings, drawings, sculptures, or perhaps dinosaurs and wooly mammoths.

If art or nature won’t do it, then spend some quality time at a bookstore. You may not think of it as the equivalent to a musical or theatrical or even a museum experience, but you could do much worse than getting lost among a bunch of books. Unless they are committed to it, college students rarely have the chance to read for pleasure because they are so focused on reading for class. What could be better than spending time looking through the fiction and non-fiction sections of the bookstore (whether local or a “chain” store) for a book to read over the break? Reading a novel for pleasure isn’t work, and you won’t have to write a report or being tested on it.

Alternatively, you might want to read a timely non-fiction work. I recommend Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book—The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which has much to say about why students are so anxious and how aspects of the college experience may only be making things worse. This book is a good read because there is so much to consider and debate regarding how the college experience has evolved (or some might say, devolved) over the last several years. And who better to react to the authors’ observations and arguments than college students themselves?

Of course, even simpler experiences are often the best experiences. Why not get together with a friend you’ve not seen for a while during the holidays? Better yet, take your friend out for a treat, such as a nice cup of coffee or a decadent dessert. Spending a little bit of money on a warming repast is a good way to reconnect and catch up with a pal, as well as to engage in some prosocial spending. Again, you are not buying more stuff—you are buying some meaningful time with a friend. Research in positive psychology also finds that we are happier spending money on other people than we are on ourselves.

This last finding is also a reminder that donating even a modest amount to a charity this time of year can be immensely satisfying. There are numerous outlets where you can make a donation during December. Many grocery stores will round up your total to the nearest dollar, giving the change to local food banks. So, you can help yourself—give a little gift to yourself—by helping others.

So, good luck on final exams and think about what gift you can give to yourself (and perhaps to others).


Bolt, M., & Dunn, D. S. (2016). Pursuing human strengths: A positive psychology guide (2nd edition). New York, NY: Worth/Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1-319-00448-4