Even though it’s sometimes stressful to have to give gifts, turns out that it’s important to happiness.

As part of the Happiness Project, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the nature of generosity and gifts.

I’ve always been fascinated by gift exchange – in particular, potlatch. It was my preoccupation with potlatch that eventually led me to write Profane Waste.

But although I’m intellectually interested in the impulse toward gift-giving, I don’t like gift-giving much, myself.

I worry that I’m mean-spirited, because I don’t like to bring a little box of chocolates to a dinner party, or to give a birthday present to an adult.

Why?

It’s not because I’m cheap. I am an under-buyer, but I don’t begrudge spending on friends and family.

Partly it’s because I like to minimize trouble. I dislike shopping. I don’t want to create more errands for myself.

Partly it’s because I think that, often, people don’t really want these gifts. More birthday gifts for children who already opened too many presents on their birthday; more high-calorie treats for people who are watching their weight.

But although I’ve tried to pretend that gift-giving didn’t matter much, I’ve always known that it DOES matter. It’s an important gesture.

So I was very interested to read Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times article, A Gift That Keeps On Giving? A Gift Itself. In a nutshell, “People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.”

Gift-giving makes me stop and think about the people in my life, what they like, what they need. It’s tangible proof of my affection.

So, okay. I don’t like to shop or do errands, but what can I do, within the confines of my own nature, to be generous? I need to cultivate a generosity of spirit.

First, I need to observe the gift-giving traditions: holidays, birthdays, and Mother’s/Father’s Day.

Also, a way for me to be generous is to send people books. If there’s something I think they’d really like, I send it through Amazon. It’s easy, it’s efficient, and it’s thoughtful.

Observing traditional gift-giving occasions is important, because it shows planning and thoughtfulness, and if a person is expecting a gift, there’s no disappointment and hurt.

Surprising someone with a gift gives a little extra thrill to the recipient. Studies show that people react more strongly when they receive an unexpected, rather than expected, present.

I also look for other, non-buying strategies. I hit on a few: Help people think big, Bring people together, and Cut people slack.

I need to buy a gift today, in fact! It matters.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Last year a dear friend of our family died, and at the funeral I was taken by how many people were profoundly attached to her. An interesting revelation that surfaced only after her death: each of her 21 grandchildren thought they were considered “the special one” by their grandmother. It turns out my friend had a lifelong habit of buying unexpected and “just perfect” gifts for the people in her life. This habit did an amazing job of connecting her to all of us. It’s something I can only aspire to!

  • Thank you for linking to this article! I’ve always loved the whole process of gift-giving, and had a hard time articulating why. It’s actually been as a result of reading your blog that I found the courage to just say “it makes me happy, and that’s reason enough”. But, this article gives more insight into the why.
    If you don’t like the commercialism or clutter of gifts, consider giving (or asking for) gifts of time/events, service, or charity. When my grandmother no longer wanted gifts from her gaggle of over 20 kids & grandkids, she asked instead for each to do something for charity and tell her about it. People were very creative in the things they chose to do, and their reasons, and often found ways to personalize that as well. These were just as much gifts to her as anything wrapped in a box. And it’s a tradition we continue with our other older relatives now that she’s gone.

  • Recently my Affiliate Amazon send me an email about a special banner that links to a place where you can look at Video’s with ‘Toys in Action’.
    Usually it might not alway’s be clear what kind of TOYS there are on the market nowaday’s, with this Video’s you can actually see what specific toys look like, you can see a demonstration about
    how they work.
    So I thought, with Christmas around the corner, why not put up this ‘Toy Video Banner’ on my site for a while? I can easily remove it if I like to.
    So If you seriously plan to thoughtfully ‘Spoil’ – your own – or somebody elses children this Christmas,
    At the moment my site is ‘the place be’ to do some serious ‘Toy Research’ 🙂
    All the Best,
    HP

  • The NYT link is invalid. Please fix the link, I’d like to read it.
    I always enjoy giving gifts since I was little. Thinking about the receiver gives me joy. I love crafts, so wrapping gifts in creative way is also very enjoyable for me. Often times, I shop all year round for perfect gifts. I can’t resist when I see something that my friends might enjoy. I store them up and wait until Christmas or their birthdays.
    I would enjoy getting books. You can check people’s wish list on Amazon. You can search them easily if they have it registered with their email or full name. (A friend of mine has all porn on the list. He probably didn’t know it’s public. He’s getting chocolates.)

  • Marie Lopez

    How do you feel when you receive gifts?

  • I’ve been thinking alot about happyness and the nature of gift giving this festive season. I’m not a very materialistic person and I often end up with a lot of things I dont want or need. I may appreciate them at the start but in a year they will have become junk.
    Have you heard about the 5 love languages? Apparently people express and receive love through these 5 main mediums; physical touch, gift giving, words of encouragement, Quality time and acts of service. Gift giving is only one of 5 possible ways to show you appreciate someone!
    So this Christmas I am going to try and incorporate all love languages into my gift giving. A coupon for a free act of service, one for a cuddle, one for some quality time on an adventure, a note full of encouraging words and a gift as well.
    I’m sure there are a lot of people like me, where gifts aren’t the best way for them to receive love. So this way, you cover all your bases, and the gift continues through the year, with people cashing in the coupons in later months! I hope you like this idea!

  • Kate

    I have been reading and enjoying the blog..and I know you have to be you. But the part of you which is constantly harping about dieting makes me ill.
    You don’t want to give a food gift to someone watching their weight, blah, blah ,blah. If I just knew where I would send you a 3 lb box of my home made Christmas candy.

  • Hi Getchen
    A bit off subject but just had one of the best reads in years and am planning on giving it as gift this year. It’s called “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane setterfield. It’s a breathtaking read and two big publishers actually got in a bidding war on who have the rights to this book. The rights to the film have already been bought by the creators of Harry Potter films. If you have any reading time at all check this out. k

  • Sorry about the link. I can’t figure out what the problem is; I even get an error message from Typepad, which I’ve never seen before. So here’s the link to paste into your browser:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/health/11well?_r=1&oref=slogin.
    Great ideas about different ways to give.
    Several people have mentioned that they think I talk about dieting too much. And obviously I know that I write about it quite a bit. The thing is, I THINK about it quite a bit. So I’ve struggled with the question of whether to “Be Gretchen” and be honest about my own preoccupations here(whether or not I should be preoccupied, I AM) or whether I risk alienating people by focusing too much on a topic that a lot of people find annoying.
    This also raises a deeper question: what do you do when you find that your happiness is affected by something that you think should NOT affect it? E.g., your weight? Or how much money you have in comparison to your friends? Or the kind of life lived by your children, your parents, etc? We can struggle to change our values, but that is very, very difficult. Even when we know that they are shallow and perhaps even wrong.

  • beth_nc

    Thanks for the comments on making connections through gift-giving. As people noted, gifts can take many shapes and forms. I like giving experiences — memberships, theater tickets, good food. . .
    About the dieting, you write (immediately above) that “being Gretchen” might mean being honest about your preoccupations, but why can’t “being Gretchen” mean deciding to accept your body?

  • Just watched a fake news clip on The Onion, about how the rich people are burden with shopping while poor enjoy truth meaning of Christmas. I think you’ll like it.
    http://www.theonion.com/content/video/report_nation_s_wealthy_cruelly

  • Some great observations. I have also wavered back and forth on the gift giving concept as well. Identifying and finding a gift that someone special to us will want also is a great means to get us to stop thinking about ourselves; at least for a little while

  • Janice May

    Hello Gretchen, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts even though I often find I have a very different view than you. I too am searching out what happiness means for me.
    When contemplating Christmas and putting effort into gifts and celebration, I think that the more effort you put into it, the more special it will feel. This year my mom wants a “quiet Christmas” and is giving everyone gift certificates instead of shopping. I know everyone will appreciate the certificates (myself included!), but I worry that she’ll find that Christmas has passed her by without much meaning or fun because she didn’t put any effort into it. I remember how much fun she’s had on previous busy Christmases, for instance.
    I believe that happiness isn’t contained in comfort and ease—it’s a balance of effort and reward. Happiness needs hope and triumph, and to have these things you need a bit of struggle and some unfulfilled desires.
    I find that if I push myself to do things I don’t want to do, I’ll feel a big boost for having done it, because I created a challenge and triumphed.
    Gretchen, I don’t like running errands either—I’m a single young woman who lives alone and doesn’t have a car, and I have severe social anxiety. So shopping and errands can be time-consuming and difficult. But this year I decided to put a solid effort into the holidays because I want Christmas and the family celebration to feel special. It makes me happy.

  • Desert Lady

    Thank you for this post, Gretchen. The principle about maintaining connection with loved ones via gift-giving encourages me. We have lots of children and grandchildren, and no one really NEEDS anything. One daughter even told me recently, “It’s hard for anything to be special, because everyone has so much.” For myself, I don’t want a lot of “stuff.” I want to simplify life and to “distil life to its essence.” The time, effort, and money expended to add to everyone’s possessions seems like a sad waste. I appreciate many of your other readers’ suggestions e.g. ask children to give to charities, instead of to you; in planning a gift, consider each person’s love language. Even your comment about “cutting people slack” is one to remember at this gift-giving season. Thank you for a lovely and practical post! Desert Lady

  • EAC

    I love giving and receiving books, too. On my Christmas list this year, I asked for books that could be found on Amazon. But, I requested that people only buy (plentifully available) USED copies. It saves the gift giver quite a bit, and stops paper waste.
    Also, re: Gretchen’s preoccupation with “weighty” issues: give her a break. I bet she (and it looks like she) is not fat. That’s a LOT more than most Americans can say for themselves.

  • Rachel

    My husband and I pretty early on in our relationship established a rule that we would never give gifts out of obligation. Instead, we gave each other permission to buy presents whenever we were inspired. The result has been that holidays are less stressful and more about connecting and spending time with people, and we spend all year long thinking of each other and doing kind things. Even better, it means we do not join the millions of Americans who go into more and more debt every year.
    It has been my experience that few people feel joy in the giving traditionally associated with this season. They feel guilt for not getting enough or the “right” things. They feel smug because they can afford more than their friends or family members. They feel inadequate because their Christmases do not look like the ones on TV commercials. Etc., etc., etc. There are as many motivations for giving gifts as their are people, some of them more enjoyable than others. And beyond the giving, there seems to be less and less gratitude associated with the receiving and more disappointment and even a sense of unsatisfied need–as if people are expecting to feel more whole or filled in some way, only to discover that it’s just not enough.
    I really think that the major flaw in the whole holiday gift pursuit is that it is simply another expression of an economy that depends on its consumers seeking happiness and validation in external things. Things they have to pay for. Of course it doesn’t HAVE to be this way, but it too often is. And I just am not at a point, personally, where that doesn’t taint my feelings about giving and receiving gifts–especially out of obligation. I like to do things out of joy. I want my gifts to have no other motivation than that it makes me happy to do it.
    I have at times, however, struggled with figuring out the meaning of the season then with the absence of presents and the mad consumer dash. What I settled on was that the whole thing for me was primarily about one thing–time spent together. This sometimes involves spending money–a dinner out with friends on us. Plane tickets back to see the family. Hosting a gathering at our apartment. These are the things that I remember.
    Small, authentic gestures of kindness are, of course, appreciated and cherished. And this is not to poopoo the power of a gift. I love buying presents, but only when they are inspired.
    Finally, as a side note, on the topic of diet. As someone who worked very hard at one point in her life to change her eating habits and loose 40 pounds, I’m grateful that there are people out there who worry about the wisdom of giving chocolates to people who may be concerned about the same thing. Just Be Gretchen. That’s why we read.

  • hiker7

    Gretchen,
    Thanks for this post. Sadly, long ago I convinced my wife to limit gift giving to mainly the children in our families. Now I see more clearly that I only limited my joy. Gifts, especially for adults, don’t need to be expensive. Just put some thought in it. Effort equals reward.

  • STL Mom

    Choosing gifts for people makes me anxious. I always worry that I’m giving people something they don’t want, already have, can’t use, or that will add to their clutter. I can’t wait until my nieces and nephews are old enough to appreciate gift cards.
    Call me Scrooge, but I would rather just get together with people and skip the gift giving all together!

  • Hello Gretchen. Great post, on what’s a difficult subject. I love giving presents, when I have time to think thoroughly about that person, and can find them something that I think is perfect for them. What I hate is last minute, under-pressure buying when you rarely make such good judgements. I’ve just been writing about last minute gift giving for my site, and I have to say my last minute choice would be to buy something from somewhere like Oxfam Unwrapped, given that research says panic gifts are 4 times more likely to be unsuitable than planned buying! Say no to rubbish presents! Or, a bit like you, I’d stop by Waterstones for a great book 🙂

  • Thanks for your post and making me think about giving ‘Gifts’, Christmas Gifts to be more exact…,
    I already had put up a banner with a link to a site where you could see all kinds of ‘Video Demonstrations’ of ‘Toy’s’. (as mentioned before in a comment on this post.)
    Because It’s Christmas time I now also made a selection of all kind of nice Christmas Music, Christmas CD’s some of Various Artists and CD’s from Artists like for example Mariah Carey, Vanessa Williams, Lou Rawls, Frank Sinatra and a few others. I made a special ‘Video Widget’ for it and you actually see those Artists ‘Slashing’ on your screen.
    So If you want to find some Happy Music for a Happy Christmas (or for a Christmas Gift, you know where to find it.)
    All the Best,
    HP
    (P.S. because some years ago I worked in the Music Business – and I like to write about Music – you can also find all kinds of Posts about Music on HP’s Happy Blogspot)

  • Adrian

    Fascinating topic. David Maybury-Lewis wrote that in some cultures, a precious gift is not something one person gives another, but passed on from person to person – in this way, the joy of an object does not stagnate with the one recipient (who may or may not appreciate it) but brings joy many times.
    A bit like a good book, of course!

  • Wow. You always make me think!
    “Gift-giving makes me stop and think about the people in my life, what they like, what they need. It’s tangible proof of my affection.”
    I felt this exactly this year. Instead of giving my brother a gift card, I called and asked him what he likes. What kinds of food is he eating, etc. (He lives in Seattle area and I don’t get to see him much.) I was so surprised to learn how he is trying to be healthier. It was really neat to connect in whole new way. I sent him some really neat “raw cheeses” from igourmet and he LOVED them. Much more than a gift certificate. And I really did feel closer to him. I never thought of ritual gift giving that way…thanks for making me see the value in routine gift giving – even though surprise gifts tend to mean more.
    P.s. I just noticed you have an outdated link to my blog in your blogroll…could you update it from Neat Living to Neat & Simple Living at http://blog.neatandsimple.com ? Thanks for the “gift” of your time in doing that! : )

  • Wow. You always make me think!
    “Gift-giving makes me stop and think about the people in my life, what they like, what they need. It’s tangible proof of my affection.”
    I felt this exactly this year. Instead of giving my brother a gift card, I called and asked him what he likes. What kinds of food is he eating, etc. (He lives in Seattle area and I don’t get to see him much.) I was so surprised to learn how he is trying to be healthier. It was really neat to connect in whole new way. I sent him some really neat “raw cheeses” from igourmet and he LOVED them. Much more than a gift certificate. And I really did feel closer to him. I never thought of ritual gift giving that way…thanks for making me see the value in routine gift giving – even though surprise gifts tend to mean more.
    P.s. I just noticed you have an outdated link to my blog in your blogroll…could you update it from Neat Living to Neat & Simple Living at http://blog.neatandsimple.com ? Thanks for the “gift” of your time in doing that! : )