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Finding the perfect gift is supposed to be a matter of instinct—something we achieve by tapping into our intuitions about the people we love and magically sensing what they want. To present such a gift is to bask in the warm glow of the bonds we share with those closest to us, and to briefly lend physical form to our mutual understanding.
That’s the Hallmark version, anyway. The reality, as millions of us are remembering this holiday season, is that giving gifts is hard work, and the yearly process of finding one for everybody who expects one from us can feel like a series of taxing emotional tests. How well do we really know the people in our lives? How perceptive and creative are we, and how generous? How harshly will we be judged if we get it wrong?
Instead of wallowing in self-doubt, it’s worth realizing that we’re not crazy to find gift-giving difficult: As social interactions go, it’s deeply complex, and has long been a topic of fascination for experts on human behavior. From developmental psychologists who have looked at gift-giving among babies, to hyper-rational economists who have wondered why we don’t all just give each other money instead of presents, researchers from across the social sciences have zeroed in on the ritual of gift exchange as a window into what we think, feel, and want. Collectively, their work has produced insights that cast an analytical—and helpful—light on the trials of our yearly quest to delight our families and friends.
Sure, it may run counter to the spirit of the holidays to think about gift-giving in such a cool and calculating manner. But by treating the holidays as a series of solvable problems—rather than by holding ourselves to an impossible ideal—we can, perhaps, get better at it. So this holiday season, give yourself a break: Use the advice inside to treat gift-giving not as an art, but as a science.
AN EXPERIENCE YOU CAN WRAP
For a lot of us, doing stuff is more fun than having stuff: A study from 2003 conducted by Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist at University of Colorado Boulder, showed that people who spend their money on experiences end up happier with their purchases than those who spend it on material possessions. According to Van Boven, this extends to gift-giving as well. Paying for your husband or wife to visit a massage parlor, or treating your family to a beach getaway, is likely to create more happiness in the long run than a physical gift. But Van Boven acknowledges that such intangible gifts have their downsides, particularly at the moment when they’re being presented to the recipient. “It’s really natural for people to want material things,” Van Boven said. And, he added, when it comes to ritualized holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, unwrapping presents and opening boxes is a huge part of the fun. “When you deviate from that, it’s really disruptive—it feels like something is not quite right,” said Van Boven.
How to square this with the happiness research? What Van Boven has done in his own life, he said, is spend the big money on experiences—say, a ski vacation—and supplement them with related material objects, like hand warmers. That way, recipients have a thing to open in addition to an activity to anticipate.
THE BOX MIGHT BE THE BEST PART
Getting presents for children—whether your own or someone else’s—involves a tangle of complications, starting with the fact that what looks like fun to an adult often doesn’t look that way to a kid. But there’s even more to think about than that when it comes to kids: what’s good for their mental and social development, what will expand their horizons, what will prove entertaining to them for weeks or months instead of minutes.
Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The Philosophical Baby,” has found that when it comes to young children especially, the most important property to look for in a gift is that it lends itself to pretend-play. Such gifts, Gopnik said, develop children’s ability to engage in counter-factual thinking—to imagine “ways the world could be other than the way it is.”
Blocks and dolls are good in this respect, according to Gopnik, while some toys that are explicitly designed to be educational—a talking microscope, for instance, that recites facts—are not. “One of the best presents my son ever got was from his wonderful grandmother,” Gopnik said. “She made dress-up clothes: a whole box full of capes and different kinds of trousers and wands and sparkly crowns. And it was a very inexpensive present, but it was a fantastic source of pretend-play.”Continued...