How to Give the Perfect Holiday Gift – 5 Tips Backed by Science - NJlifehacks
how to give the perfect holiday present

How to Give the Perfect Holiday Gift – 5 Tips Backed by Science

Holiday season is upon us and it’s time to consider what gifts to give to your loved-ones.

While you may dread the process and want to get it over with quickly, keep in mind that the point of gifts is to strengthen relationships.

Picking the right gift can increase feelings of appreciation and connection between people. It can result in reminiscence about shared memories or anticipation for a shared future.

Oh, but how do you figure out the right gift to give?

Thankfully, science can point the way and help you choose a gift that maximizes the recipient’s happiness while bringing the two of you closer together. Here are five science-backed tips for picking the perfect holiday gift

1. Choose Practicality Over Attractiveness and Price

When it comes to great gifts, practicality trumps attractiveness and price.

A study aptly titled Money Can’t Buy Love reports an interesting asymmetry in beliefs about price and feelings of appreciation between gift givers and receivers: “Gift-givers expected a positive correlation between how much they spent on a gift and the extent to which gift-recipients would appreciate the gift because gift-givers assume that more expensive gifts convey a higher level of thoughtfulness. Gift-recipients, in contrast, reported no such association between gift price and their actual feelings of appreciation.”

Contrary to beliefs of gift givers, recipients don’t appreciate costlier gifts more than less costly ones. Price doesn’t influence the appreciation experienced by gift receivers.

A similar study found the same asymmetry in regards to attractiveness of a gift. Gift givers believe attractive gifts will be more highly appreciated. Gift receivers, on the other hand, report no association between attractiveness and feelings of appreciation.

Neither money nor attractiveness matter much. So what does? Practicality. Gift receivers focus on the feasibility of a gift. They value usefulness. One study actually showed that people feel closer to someone who gave them a more usable gift rather than one that seemed fancier.

(To clarify, attractiveness refers to “the quality of the item’s end-state and is related to the central

aspects of the gift, such as the quality of the food at a restaurant, the uses of a piece of software, or the pleasure of a movie. Feasibility refers to the ease, convenience, or other nonessential aspects of the gift, such as the distance to get to the restaurant, the ease of learning how to use software, or the convenience of seeing a movie.”)

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Gift something people can actually use. A gift card for a nearby restaurant trumps a gift card for a fancier but more distant restaurant.

2. Give Them What They Asked For

A study titled Give Them What They Want showed that gift receivers appreciate gifts they explicitly requested more than those they did not. Gift givers, in contrast, assume that both solicited and unsolicited gifts will be equally appreciated.

“At the root of this dilemma is a difference of opinion about what purchasing an unsolicited gift signals,” explain the researchers. “Gift givers expect unsolicited gifts will be considered more thoughtful and considerate by their intended recipients than is actually the case.” Worse yet, gift recipients generally experience solicited gifts as more thoughtful than unsolicited ones.

It’s another mismatch between givers and receivers of gifts. And here’s yet another one: While givers believe that recipients do not appreciate receiving money as much as receiving a solicited gift, recipients in the study actually appreciated money more than any other item initially requested.

Gift-Giving Takeaway: If you know what someone wants, just give them that. Package it nicely. Write a thoughtful note to go with it. Done.

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Don’t be afraid of gifting money or gift cards. You can still add a personal touch by adding a handwritten note or some other add-on. (Hint: When giving gift cards, research suggests keeping it broad so that recipients have many options. Pure cash would be best in that regard.)

3. Pick a Gift that Satisfies Rather Than “Wows” the Recipient

“Gift givers tend to focus on the 'big reveal,' leading them to choose whichever gift is more likely to surprise and delight the recipient in the moment -- even when other options are more likely to bring recipients the greatest satisfaction,” finds this study.

Similar research proposes that “many giver-recipient discrepancies in the gift-giving literature can be explained, at least partially, by the notion that when evaluating the quality of a gift, givers primarily focus on the moment of exchange, whereas recipients primarily focus on how valuable a gift will be once owned.”

It’s not about attractiveness or other wow factors. It’s about usefulness (and about the right emotional punch, as discussed in the next two tips).

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Give something useful. It doesn’t need to be flashy, fancy, fun, spectacular, expensive, or sexy.

4. Consider Gifting an Experience

A study examining the relationship-strengthening effects of material gifts (objects recipients can keep) versus experiential gifts (events recipients can live through) found that “experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts, regardless of whether the gift giver and recipient consume the gift together.”

“A driving factor underlying this effect is the greater level of emotion elicited when recipients consume experiential gifts versus material gifts. Even though there was no difference in the intensity of emotion recipients felt upon receiving experiential and material gifts, recipients felt more emotional when consuming experiential (vs. material) gifts, which served to strengthen their relationship with the gift giver. From this, we learn that gift givers seeking to foster closer relationships with their recipients are likely to achieve greater success by giving experiential gifts, rather than material gifts.”

Again: It’s not about the “wow factor” – the emotional experience while receiving the gift. It’s about long-term usefulness and the emotional experience while using or consuming the gift. And, as this research shows, said emotional experience is generally greater for experiential gifts.

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Consider giving tickets to a baseball game, Rock concert, or a night at the theatre. Or a shared dinner. Or a trip to the zoo, Disney World, or a nearby museum.

5. Pack an Emotional Punch (the Right Way!)

While experiences tend to be more emotional than material gifts, the previous study showed that “emotionally evocative material gifts can also strengthen relationships.” In their study, “many of the emotional material gifts were pieces of jewelry commemorating a meaningful life event (e.g., engagement or wedding, birth of a child, graduation) or passed down as heirlooms. Others included photographs and religious items (e.g., bible, rosary).”

In short, material gifts with a strong emotional charge can be just as appreciated or even more so than experiences. Examples include so-called sentimental gifts, such as a framed photograph taken on graduation day or a scrapbook given by a husband to his wife on their 5-year anniversary. Research shows such gifts are highly appreciated and sought after. 

Once again, there’s a discrepancy between beliefs of gift givers versus receivers: “The studies in this paper demonstrated that givers do not give sentimentally valuable gifts as often as recipients would prefer, and that this appears to be the result of givers feeling relatively uncertain about whether sentimentally valuable gifts will be well-liked by recipients.”

Fun fact: that study is titled Sentimental Value and Gift Giving: Givers' Fears of Getting It Wrong Prevents Them from Getting It Right.

Note that the emotional gifts we’re talking about here can also elicit a “wow factor” in recipients. In this case, that’s a good thing and different from “wow factors” obtained by funny, outrageous, expensive, or surprising gifts.

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Have the courage to give something with a high emotional or sentimental value.

Gift-Giving Takeaway: Add handwritten notes for an easy way to increase the emotional charge of your gifts.

BONUS: How to Transform Gift-Giving from a Chore to a Joy

If you’re like me and gift-giving isn’t naturally rewarding to you, here’s a trick that helped me transform gift-giving from a chore to a joy. The method is this: Give yourself more time to come up with gift ideas for the important people in your life. Don’t rush through the process. Don’t try to get it over with.

Try to come up with a sensible, thoughtful gift that the other person will greatly enjoy. Not only does this make the deliberation process a lot more enjoyable, but it also gives you greater calm and confidence when delivering the gift.

There’s even research to back this up. One study found that when people spend time thinking about a gift for someone, they feel closer to that person, and that makes them happier.

Your Turn

What’s your biggest takeaway from this research?

Here’s mine: For people close to me, gifting something sentimental or an experience is best. For everyone else, asking for what they want and aiming for usefulness is best.

Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.