The Art of Giving

We have talked about the idea of gift-giving before, and while more and more people seem tired of the struggle (think Christmas stress and spending) and ready to give the gift-giving up altogether, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. While we would probably receive a unanimous “no” to the question of whether you would like to receive another unwelcome and useless item of the celebratory candle and tacky photo album variety, a meaningful and carefully considered gift would probably be welcome.

Sure, there is something to be said about the over-abundance and physical clutter which the more developed parts of the word are living in, and where the problem is often not “how to acquire more things”, but, rather, “how to get rid of more of what I already own”. While there exist extreme minimalists, which welcome no unexpected new material additions to their households, we might as well assume that the average person would not shy away from a truly meaningful gift. But what exactly is a meaningful gift, and what do you, as the potential gift-giver, need to know before you give? Well, let’s bring some science into the equation.


Let the numbers do the talking

Around 15% or 1 out of 7 Europeans receive gifts they don’t want, while another 10% could not remember their most recent present. On the other side of the pond, an estimated 62% of Americans expected to be given gifts they do not want in 2019. Although 68% of people in the US consider gift-giving one of their ‘love languages’, the number of people who are not satisfied with what they get is growing. Giving gifts that are meaningful to the recipient is a challenge that can be met using results of scientific studies.


Why not ask the expert?

One study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology looked at the appreciation and thoughtfulness of giving and receiving unsolicited and solicited gifts. According to the research, recipients are more appreciative of gifts that they openly requested than those they did not. Gift givers, on the other hand, assumed that both solicited and unsolicited presents will be equally valued. The difference in opinions is that gift givers believe unsought presents are considered more thoughtful and considerate.

Thus, if you don’t know what to give someone you know on their birthday, the simplest solution to your dilemma is to ask them what they want. On the other hand, if you know the person well enough, you might be able to tell what they want as gifts. Whether they opt for a monthly subscription box, sustainable clothing, or a wellness voucher, getting something that they desire is well appreciated. Offering a gift that they want is also an expression of how well you know them.


Aim for practical gifts

In another study (Baskin et al, 2014), the authors studied how gift givers evaluate the desirability and convenience of a present to understand what the recipient wants. Gift-givers gave a state of the art pen which is considered highly desirable. However, receivers who got the desirable pen did not feel the same way preferring practical long-life ink retractable pens.

The study suggests that gift-givers interpret gift-giving abstractedly and value desirability over the feasibility attributes of a present. They also do not choose gifts that maximize the happiness of the recipients even though they believe they are doing so. Hence, when buying a gift, consider if the receiver will find use for it. For example, you might want to gift a friend with a dinner voucher at a fancy restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant is out of town, and public transportation is limited. In addition, your friend has no car and would need to take a taxi. In this situation, you might want to choose a good restaurant that is closer to their home making it a practical and more attractive alternative to the receiver. 


Where does it leave us?

So, we can conclude that gift-giving – the giving of meaningful gifts that the receiver will enjoy and appreciate – is not such an easy thing. But the trick doesn’t lie in the supposed mysteriousness of gifts. The usually false assumption of the giver is that the gift should surprise the recipient – that the surprise is the central element of the gift. But that might last only until the wrapping is removed.

So, a good practice of gift-giving doesn’t need to be a struggle to create a surprise. The happiness of the receiver and the meaning of your gift will only be enhanced by the actual usefulness of the gift. So – either ask the receiver directly, or give a practical gift that they need, and will use and appreciate. No mystery required!


 Article prepared in collaboration with Jennifer Mackintosh


Agra Lieģe

About the author: I am a reader, a writer and I love hiking in the mountains. If I can avoid going shopping to IKEA - I will. And I enjoy thinking and writing about the things that keep me up at night the most. Especially, if  there is even the slightest chance that it might help bring about even the tiniest bit of change.

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