Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Myth of the Perfect Gift

Are you looking for the perfect gift this holiday season? Look no further. It doesn’t exist. As we reported the other day, Americans spend between 3-4% of their annual income on Christmas season gifts. The objective of this considerable allocation of funds, we might assume, is to give things to the people we love and like that will enrich their lives–things they will appreciate, use and enjoy.

The reality is something quite different. A Psychology Today article reports sobering information about the psychology of gift giving and receiving. Author Ben C Fletcher cites Professor Karen Pine’s research about festive gifts, which found that:

  • 89% of women and 79% of men pretended to like a gift they hated.
  • Half of all people had received at least one gift they hated the previous Christmas.
  • Half of all people have lied to a loved one about a gift, pretending to like it.
  • Gift receivers reported avoiding eye contact with the giver for fear of revealing how they really felt.
  • Gift receivers reported producing fake smiles using only the mouth (not the eye) muscles when pretending to like a gift.
  • Only 12% said they would tell the gift giver directly they didn’t like their gifts (“men were significantly more likely to do this than women”).
  • 1 in 5 people said receiving a gift made them feel anxious.

The reason for these pretenses and anxiety, Fletcher contends, is the maintenance of social bonds. The objective of a gift is to strengthen those bonds. If the receiver rejects the gift, it might weaken the bond–something he or she does not want to do. So people lie. They say they like things they don’t in order to maintain the relationship.

It’s not much easier for the gift giver, who is unsure whether his gift will strengthen of weaken the social bond he’s trying to maintain (not to mention possibly leveraging his finances). Pine found that a quarter of people surveyed reported that giving a gift made them anxious.

So what do we do? How do we strengthen social bonds without forking over a ton of money? How do we avoid putting our loved ones in positions where they feel like they must pretend to like something in order to maintain a relationship? Here are a few ideas:

  • Give experiences. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, people are far more likely to be satisfied with an experience than an object. Treat them to a play, take them out to dinner or cook dinner for them, go for a sleigh ride…whatever. Keep the focus on doing and experiencing, not having and accumulating. If you need to hand something over, give them a “One Less Gift Certificate.”
  • Give a gift certificate or money. It might lack the romance, but these gifts are sure to get used (unless the gift certificate is for an extremely inappropriate store, i.e. don’t get a Tiffany’s gift certificate to your ultra-minimalist pal.).
  • Give thoughtfully. Gift giving is an art. It often takes time, consideration and some knowledge of the gift receiver’s life. If we don’t have those things, we might want to give something with more universal appeal. If we do have those things, choose something carefully…and feel free to throw in a gift receipt and give license to use it ;-).

Upset man image via Shutterstock