As kids, we spend a lot of time learning — and often being taught — how to receive a gift. That’s certainly for the best. I’ve seen home videos of my five-year-old self giving lackluster receptions to birthday and Christmas presents out of a sheer lack of tact, and they’re extremely uncomfortable. I’m glad I learned the ways. But I, like many, was never taught how to give gifts, which is a shame. Because knowing how to find and give a great gift is an essential life skill.
Gift giving teaches you how to be thoughtful in what you pick out for someone, and how to use the act of giving as an opportunity to consider someone else’s perspective. In other words, it’s an act of empathy. This doesn’t only do a world of good for the person receiving a gift. It’s also psychologically positive for everyone involved.
“Giving activates our optimum bias, or what I like to call our ‘wired-for-love’ nature, setting off a cascade of positive neurophysiological responses that increase our intelligence, wisdom, and longevity,” says Dr. Caroline Leaf, author of Think, Learn, Succeed. “In fact, giving in love activates a genetic switch that increases our mental resilience, helping us cope with the challenges of life.”
Emotions, Dr. Leaf says, are basically contagious. The excitement you display as a gift-giver will be reflected back to you by the person receiving the gift, creating an infinite feedback loop of positivity that strengthens the bond between you. “We thrive on deep, meaningful relationships and connection,” says Dr. Leaf, “which has a positive impact on the trillions of cells in the brain and body.”
Becoming a great gift giver requires getting outside of yourself, and getting outside yourself requires a shift in perspective as to what other people want. Suzie Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski, authors of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts, apply a different model of empathy to gift giving, a spin on the Golden Rule that they dub the Aristotelian Rule: “Treat others as their best selves would want us to treat them.”
“This rule encourages us to focus on the good we see in others and treat them in a way that will help them grow that good and become better,” they say. “So, when it comes to gift-giving, we can ask ourselves: what would their best self want? What are their values? Goals? Dreams?” We must, they add, reflect upon these questions and then give a gift that would align with their best selves.
There’s no better time to practice Aristotelian gift-giving than over the holidays. However, when I — and I’m sure many others — try to get in the mindset of a great gifter, it can be dwarfed by the enormity of the task and the presumption that might be involved. What comes to mind every year is the Christmas episode of 30 Rock that sees Liz exchanging friend-gifts with Jack for the first time, only to find out that it’s an extremely competitive activity for him. “He’s the best gift giver in the world,” says Jack’s assistant. “I tried once. I bought him a $95 bottle of olive oil. In return, he got my sister out of a North Korean jail.”
But it just doesn’t have to be that complicated. The fundamentals of good gift giving are couched in pretty basic attitude adjustments, as well as in sacrificing a few of your own expectations about how the gift-giving will go.
“Imagine how you’ll feel if that beautiful sweater you bought your daughter ends up in a ball on the floor of her closet,” says Susan G. Groner, founder of The Parenting Mentor, author of Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World: Simple Strategies for Parenting with Sanity and Joy. “If you imagine yourself angry, that’s an expectation. A true gift is something the recipient can do with what she pleases. She can lend it to friends, she can resell it, she can cut it up if she chooses.”
But the expectation of a certain kind of use isn’t the only expectation that can sink the experience of giving a gift. You should also make sure to avoid a judgmental outlook, even an unintentional one, on the gifts someone might request for themselves, and embrace the inherent impracticality of the gift-giving tradition. This is especially true with kids, notes Groner. “Kids don’t feel good if they think you don’t like the things that they want,” she says. “If you have a concern or question about a particular item on the wish list, try asking your child about it. ‘I looked at your list, Sweetie. What is it about a wind-up Chihuahua that you really like?’ When you invite your child to talk about what they want, you’re helping her to think through her choices.”
Becoming a great gift-giver is also a matter of expanding what a gift looks like. Any gift is a meaningful one when you imbue it with meaning, but it can also be worth considering ‘experiential’ gifts. “In my family, we often use gift-giving as an opportunity to do something special as a family or for the kids to try an activity they’ve never done before,” says Groner. “Maybe everyone goes to the circus or to a show — Sesame Street Live, or Frozen on Ice. For older kids, how about tickets to see a favorite band? One year my entire family went skeet shooting! Looking forward to an event and the memories it generates extends the joy of giving.” This doesn’t need to be a large group event, if such a thing is cost-prohibitive. My family is a big fan of what we call “gifts of time” — giving someone the opportunity to do something small but significant together like a home-cooked dinner and movie marathon.
But ultimately, what makes you a skilled gift giver is how you give a gift. Every family has a different tradition during the holidays. Some sit in a circle on Christmas morning and go one-by-one, for some it’s a free-for-all, and for others, it’s a matter of finding people throughout the day and giving them their gift then. But what matters this season is that you take the time, no matter the present, to communicate to someone you care about: “I was thinking of you when I wrapped this, and I’m thinking of you now.”