Author Nadine Gordimer says, “People give one another things that can’t be gift wrapped.” While this is true, during the holiday season gift wrap and the objects inside it (plus all the overthinking involved) have the tendency to transform gift-giving from pleasure to pain.

As gift givers we seek that rewarding surge of dopamine or that bonding blush of oxytocin released when we do something that makes us feel good. While gifts are designed to pleasure the receiver it’s equally true: Gift giving is designed to pleasure the giver. This places a lot of pressure on finding the right gift for the right person at the right time. Achieving this can lead to an enormous amount of stress, pressure and overthinking.

How we want others to perceive us—and how we perceive them—often gets wrapped up in how we give and receive. It all begins with how we shop. Which of these scenarios describes your process?

  • Year-round Jack keeps a running list of potential gift ideas for family and friends.
  • Days before any gift-giving event Gina frantically attempts to identify “the perfect present.”
  • For any situation Marcello calmly purchases items he thinks he would like and pairs them with appropriate recipients.

Which person has the most success at creating gift-giving happiness? Science suggests that Marcello’s plan—embodying a more relaxed and practical approach to gift buying—creates the most moments when the wrapping paper falls away and the recipient squeals with delight.

According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Journal of Consumer Research all signs to point to the fact that less overthinking is more productive in successful gift-giving.

gift boxHow to choose the “perfect” gift

In an article about how to overcome the perils of gift-giving Licensed Clinical Social Worker, F. Diane Barth, identifies three major pitfalls to success: the difficulty of attunement (getting into the recipient’s brain to assess desires and potential gift reactions), family traditions, plus multiple—and even competing—psychological motivators (including that the dichotomy of giving a gift to express love can also be motivated by wanting to receive love). Barth writes, “Understanding these dynamics does not mean giving up on the search for a great gift; but it does mean accepting the possibility that there is no such thing as a perfect one!” With all the potential failure of gift-giving it might be time for a new approach to gift-giving protocol. Two studies offer the gift of a more stress-free method of shopping for presents.

First, in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology researchers proved the value of explicitly giving recipients what they want. While givers assume that the time and thought built into unsolicited gifts makes them more appreciated the data showed otherwise: Receivers more appreciated gifts that met their own specific requests. Additionally, gifts of cash were more frequently and fully appreciated that any other type of gift.

Second, in an experiment designed to explore “the trade-offs that gift-givers and gift-receivers make between desirability and feasibility” researchers examined which methods create the most synchronicity between gift-giver choices and gift-receiver responses. The results, published in the Journal of Consumer Research may surprise you: While givers might focus on gifts designed to impress, receivers prefer gifts that are convenient and simple to use.

Nathan Novemsky, a lead researcher on the project and an expert on the psychology of judgment and decision-making at Yale University, explains, “Givers often focus on the perceived desirability of their gift because they feel it will make the recipient more appreciative of them.” However, as the experiment proved, receivers approach gifts differently: Offered a choice between two restaurant gift certificates (one fancy and sixty minutes away versus the other less highly rated but five minutes away) study participants consistently chose the more “convenient” restaurant close to home.

According to Novemsky, convenience and accessibility are the things we miss when we think about gifts. In fact, he asserts, we miss an important element of gift-choosing when we only think about the other person. We must, essentially, think about ourselves too. With feasibility in mind Novemsky suggests this two-part strategy for gift-giving:

1. Think about the general preferences of the person you’re buying for
2. Turn inward and assess what aspects you appreciate in relation to those preferences

By combining looking outward and inward Novemsky’s process creates a more holistic approach to gift-giving, one that’s neither all about the giver (buying gifts to impress) nor the receiver (and his unfathomable internal desires). Instead, by promoting attunement, reflection and assessment from both perspectives Novemsky’s suggestion creates a bond between giver and receiver from the moment the shopping begins.


Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships

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