What Makes the Perfect Gift? Probably Not What You Think.

Lately, I’ve been shopping for holiday gifts, which raises questions. What makes a good gift? Is it better to surprise people, or to shop from a list they provide? Should I spend hours searching for just the right gift?

If you’ve asked yourself these kinds of questions, John Tierney wrote an interesting New York Times article, The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For.

He looked at the research, and it turns out:

  1. Focus on long-term enjoyment, not short-term drama. Recipients enjoy a gift more when it’s something they can really use, not something that’s a sensational reveal.
  2. It’s better to buy lots of people the same good present than to give everyone individual gifts that aren’t as good. We tend to think we need to give unique gifts, but recipients don’t care much about that.
  3. Re-gift without shame. Studies show that most people aren’t offended when their gifts are re-gifted.
  4. Take suggestions. If people tell you what they’d like as a gift, buy them what they’ve asked for instead of a surprise. (In my family, we’re all expected to write long lists for ourselves, to make gift-giving easier for each other.)
  5. If you give a gift card, make it as general as possible. The more specific it is, the less likely it is to be redeemed.  People like flexibility.
  6. Gift-recipients enjoy a gift if it’s something they like, no matter how much time or effort went into its purchase. For gift-givers, however, putting time and effort into a gift makes them feel closer to the recipient. Pouring a lot of energy into buying a gift is something that is nice for the giver, not as much for the recipient.

Bonus tips from me:

  1. Items that are personalized seem more special, and these days, it’s easy to order personalized notepads, journals, mugs, sticky notes, etc.
  2. Think about The Five Love Languages. If your language is “Receiving Gifts,” remember that for other people, gift exchanges aren’t as meaningful as they are for you; try not to be hurt or angry if people don’t take the same time or effort that you do. And if the recipient of your gift speaks the language of “Receiving Gifts,” remember that to such a person, gifts have tremendous importance as expressions of love, so take gift-giving seriously.
  • Mimi Gregor

    It’s undoubtedly my Questioner nature, but I just don’t get the concept of gifts. It seems much more practical to save the money one would spend on gifts and just buy yourself what you want. And everyone else do the same. That way everyone is sure to get what they want instead of opening up an inappropriate present and thinking “Huh?”

  • Barbie

    Today I am probably sour on the subject of gifts because I just got a gift from a friend who has far more money than I do and often buys expensive gifts for me. This gift was based on what she thought was her knowledge of something I would like and the gift was completely unsuitable and would be great for “regifting” except that I don’t give gifts to anyone so it will probably end up being donated to the local thrift shop

    • Mimi Gregor

      Barbie, donating to a thrift shop is regifting… only you don’t know who the recipient will be. Speaking as an avid thrift shopper, we depend on people donating unsuitable gifts.

      I think that the main thing that irks me about the whole gift-giving culture is that it provides proof positive that your nearest and dearest don’t really know you at all — never mind friends and distant relatives. We like to think that our loved ones “get” us, and that we “get” them, but no… they don’t and we don’t.

      • Barbie

        One of the greatest challenges of my life was buying gifts for my mother who claimed to love receiving them. She gave broad hints, talked about things she liked and yet, more often than not, had changed her mind by the time I gave her the gift and it turned out to not be what she wanted. I remember one pleading phone call from my father who said “Please help me….what does your mother want?”

        • johanna

          I feel a lot like Barbie and Mimi. Also, most of my friends and relatives have a warm bed at night and enough to eat and isn’t that really enough? I do enjoy giving my 2 granddaughters books and my favorite cookies, but that is about it on the gifts. Merry Christmas season to all!

      • Julina S

        I had a friend who once gave me a bag of Sams Club nut clusters for my birthday because she’d noticed I gravitated toward them whenever I was at her house. It was a terrific gift because it communicated 2 things:

        1) I noticed
        2) I remembered

        That, to me, makes a good gift, whether expensive or “cheap”.

        I also like to give my parents (who have declared a desire to get *rid* of “stuff” and to not accumulate more) consumables with a local twist (this year, a popcorn gift box from one of the cities I frequent in my job, last year jam from a local orchard). That meets both the “no stuff” requirement but also connects it with me and my life this year.

        I’m a “words” love language girl and it took a while to realize my family members weren’t, so when I wrote long, effusive expressions of my love and caring in cards to go with the gifts, I was hurt when they would barely acknowledge the card and/or not return the gesture. Understanding love languages helped with that, for sure.

        I have a suspicion that my husband is giving me a gift that *he* really wants (OK, I accidentally peeked), but I’m OK with that. As noted by others, we generally get the things we want for ourselves (and sometimes let the other wrap it up as a “gift” – one year, it was a battery pack for my car, another it was a floor chair for my job). We are neither one “gifts” love language, so we use our “real” love languages enough to make the gifts less “fraught”…

  • Gillian

    I completely agree with Mimi, Barbie and Johanna. Most of us have more than enough stuff and enough stress. We don’t need more of either. Forget the gift and use the time, effort and money for other purposes – donate to a worthy cause that helps those who truly don’t have enough, spend time with people you care for (without any gifts) and take some time for yourself to relax. The Christmas (or other holiday) season should be festive, joyful and relaxed – useless gifts don’t contribute to that; they detract. If you really have to see some gifts under the tree, wrap a few empty boxes and keep them with your other decorations for use every year.

  • Mollie Payne

    This has been on my mind a lot lately. Why is there such an emphasis on giving people “perfect” gifts. Usually, people have what they need/want. I wish there wasn’t so much pressure at the holiday time. I have an extended family member with the love language of receiving gifts, which means she wants lots of gifts, and to be surprised. She’s a bit of a clutter keeper, so I’d rather not give her lots of useless things. She’s also great at giving lots of useless gifts, because it’s more about giving than practicality to her. She wants what you get to be a surprise, which generally means that you don’t want it. I’m trying to be sensitive around her love language, but it makes for a bit of a stressful holiday time. I struggle, because I like to be generous, but not frivolous. My favorite gift giving year was the year we all donated to buying livestock for in need families in 3rd world countries.

    • Gillian

      Donating to such a worthy cause is a so much better use of money than buying useless gifts!

    • L.S. Taylor

      It’s been my belief for a long time, that if it’s difficult to buy someone a gift, they already have too much, or you don’t know them well – both reasons to buy them a food item or something they can use up, or share with others.

  • Freda Boone Wright

    I like to give handmade gifts, or gifts that I know the person will get lots of joy/use from. My 77 yr old dad loves to feed the birds all winter, so I get him 40# bags of sunflower bird seed. He gets joy, and the birds are feed. My kids, I like to give memories. Something I know that will make a new memory… like a gift card or tickets to a show they have been Wanting to see. Or a gift certificate to the local green house so they can purchase new outdoor blooming plants for their yards. ( they are all adults with homes) Yea me! Lol. I am having my first grandchild this coming year, in February. I see so many kids with way too many “things”. I am looking forward to giving my grandchildren, my time, guidance, cuddles, and experiences they will remember when I am gone. I’ve learned a lot about “gifting” this past year. We’ve had a complete loss house fire last June 2015, and then my 51 yr old husband died suddenly this past spring. So yes, I am making new memories, because things ARE JUST THINGS… but memories will last forever.

  • I got both your newest book Better than Before, and the wall calendar for Christmas (as per my wish list) which makes me really happy of course. I put the calendar by my bed and will keep enjoying your tips, quotes and ideas for the rest of 2017! Yay!

    Thanks for all the beautiful work you put into the world Gretchen!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I hope you enjoy them

  • SG

    Why not gift something meaningful and thoughtful to your loved ones? Instead of the usual clutter or thoughtless gift cards, why not gift services from local merchants in their area. http://www.giftvolo.com is a new site launched recently that allows users to gift services from local merchants. It is simple, intuitive, convenient site for thoughtful gifting even at the last minutes. It is currently available in Bay Area, CA and Anaheim, CA.