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The Psychology of Gift Giving

...And 10 rules for better gifts.

MR. Nattanon Kanchak/Shutterstock
Source: MR. Nattanon Kanchak/Shutterstock

[Article updated on 16 December 2022.]

Whatever the season, whatever the occasion, these are my 10 rules of gift giving:

1. Never give money, in whatever shape or form.

Giving money basically sends the message, "I couldn't be bothered to think too much about you, so here you go, please yourself, 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 favorite 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 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 you know the person wants, maybe something that has come up in conversation, or something that you have seen them eyeing or browsing — something that they want, but would never buy or obtain for themselves. Don't carry coals to Newcastle, or bring owls to Athens: people often bring me tea or wine, because they know that I'm a tea-lover and a wine-lover. But their gifts hardly ever match up to my own tea and wine.

4. On the whole, people 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 bottles of wine, can also be experiences — so long as they're well chosen.

5. If the person is pressed for time, give something that doesn't take up much time, or, better still, something that fills up dead time.

One of my friends once gave me an audio recording of A History of the World in 100 Objects. This meant that I could listen to it while driving to appointments: instead of a waste of time, driving became my story time.

6. If possible, wrap the gift.

There is great pleasure to be had, both for the receiver and the giver, in the ceremony of slowly unwrapping a gift. Even if the gift is the kind of thing that fits into an envelope, wrap the envelope. Choose the envelope and the wrapping paper carefully. For example, use wrapping paper with butterflies for a nature lover, or with vintage cars for a car afficionado. All this shows that you took a great deal of time and care over the gift, and value the act of giving as well as the gift itself.

7. 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; write the message yourself. Use your message to bring to mind shared moments or strong ties, or maybe just to explain your gift or say thank you. The message should be presented and read before opening the gift. In many cases, the message is more important than the gift, which merely serves as a token of the message.

8. Give something that you yourself can share in, like theater tickets, a trip, or a book that you have already read or are planning to read.

This shows that you want to share and interact with the person — and also gives you an excuse to treat yourself.

Source: Pixabay

9. Timing is important.

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.

10. If the gift can come as a surprise, 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, with 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."

See my related article, The Psychology of Gratitude.

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