4 Ways to Make Your Gifts Meaningful

Psychologist and behavioral scientist Dr. Mike Rucker offers tips for giving gifts that are sustainable, meaningful, and more fulfilling.

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During the holiday season and other celebratory occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries, gift giving is a customary activity that is generally thought of as fun, joyful, and a way to bond with friends and loved ones. Although, it’s well-studied that the excitement we receive from gifts can be short-lived. One of the reasons that may be is that we tend to invest in gifts that excite rather than gifts that will deliver pleasure over time. Research shows that anticipating someone’s response to a gift—and wanting to wow the recipient—can overshadow thinking about the long-term happiness the gift can bring.

There are some easy ways to maximize the value of gift giving, as well as support sustainability at the same time. With a little forethought and a few simple strategies, we can elevate the experience of both giving and receiving gifts to make gift giving more fulfilling and rewarding as a result.

4 Ways to Make Your Gifts Meaningful

1. Make Thoughtful Purchases

Presents that are tied to an activity someone is passionate about are more likely to bring joy for months and years to come, especially when compared to fad gifts of the season. (Anyone still using their Snuggie?) For instance, if you have a friend that derives pleasure from waxing nostalgic about ‘80s music, gifting them with a quality vinyl record player could be a great way to help them savor experiences far into the future.

A gift tends to be more beneficial when it is in true alignment with the recipient’s identity and values. This doesn’t mean the gift needs to be elaborate; it can be something as simple as a coffee mug or a handmade craft with an inspirational quote that resonates with the individual’s worldview. Not only is such a gift more likely to spark joy, personalized gifts are also scientifically proven to be better received

Taking just a few extra moments to think through your purchase can have a significant impact. Rather than just assessing whether the purchase meets the recipient’s needs and expectations, think about the true utility the recipient will get from the gift. Does the present potentially have long-term value? Or is it a trendy object that could quickly lose its luster? Asking yourself these questions can guide you toward a meaningful decision.

2. Share With Intention

Humility is certainly a virtue. However, if someone asks you what you would like as a gift, it’s an invitation to allow them to feel good about their offering. When you answer with something like, “Whatever you get me is fine,” you are doing both yourself and the gift-giver a disservice because they’re left to guess what might bring you joy.

Being honest when someone asks you what you want is also an opportunity for self-reflection. Ask yourself, “Will my choice bring me lasting delight, or is it just a way to shake the discomfort of having to provide the asker an answer?”

3. Seek Experiential Memories

The trusted adage that investing in experiences, not things, brings more joy is true in gift-giving as well. Try tickets to a play, concert, or museum exhibit, a planned trip, an excursion like a cooking workshop or yoga class, or an adrenaline-fueled activity. Experiential gifts can evoke a strong emotional response. Whether it’s awe, excitement, or calm, these sensations are more enduring than those evoked by material possessions. Interestingly, this transcends to the relationship level too: Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that people feel more connected to gift-givers upon receiving experiential (rather than material) gifts. 

4. Surprise With Gratitude

It is rare these days to get a hand-written thank you note from someone. Savoring and reminiscing about a gift with a thoughtful note of gratitude that you deliver to the gift-giver is a wonderful way to increase the joy you receive from a gift, while in turn providing the gift-giver with a pleasant surprise. Studies indicate that expressing gratitude through writing supports the well-being of both parties. 

Wrapping It All Up

Gift giving is generally a fun activity and there is no need to overthink it. In fact, giving and receiving gifts is a great way to spread joy and strengthen bonds with family, friends, partners, and others we care about. However, investing just a couple of extra minutes on the front- and back-end—one, to think through how a gift will continue to provide joy in the future, and two, to thank the gift-giver—will not only increase the delight the recipient receives, but will likely increase the happiness created from the act of gift-giving. Plus, by giving gifts that will truly get enjoyed, you avoid purchases that are destined to quickly become landfill. An extra touch of intention is all that’s needed. Happy gift-giving!