The holiday season is a time of giving — to charities, to the less fortunate, to family and friends.
But for many people, figuring out the right gift to get each person can be laden with anxiety. That’s because for humans, gift-giving is a deeply personal, psychological experience where people try to find the exact object to communicate the exact feeling. To get it wrong or to have a gift rejected is understandably hurtful.
“Giving a gift is an opportunity to tell someone you care about them,” said Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer. “It requires that, as a recipient, you feel seen.”
The benefits of giving without thought of reward has many documented benefits. Research suggests it can lower blood pressure, make you more attractive to the opposite sex and it generally makes people happier overall.
But, says Harvard Business School professor and author Michael Norton, there are definitely dos and don’ts of gift-giving.
“What often trying to communicate to people with a gift is that we somehow care about them,” Norton said. ”But that’s really complicated because we often bring theories about how to do that that are incorrect.”
Here is Langer and Norton’s advice for giving the best gift possible this holiday season:
What’s a thoughtful gift for one person might not be for another, experts say, and that is why it’s important to think about what you’re trying to communicate to the recipient.
“If I gave a book of French poetry to someone who doesn’t speak French, obviously that wouldn’t do the job,” Langer said. “You have to give mindfully, no matter what it is. The joy is in loving rather than feeling loved.”
Sometimes that means getting something that might seem obvious, Norton said.
“If it’s something I’ve said I want or need, maybe in an online registry or something, it’s a thoughtful gift,” Norton said.
Research out of Emory University suggests that people can have the opposite view of thoughtful gift-giving. In the study released this fall, wedding guests often bought gifts that were not on the couple’s registry because they felt it would be too impersonal or the registry existed for people the couple didn’t know well.
But that doesn’t take into consideration what the couple wanted, Norton said. Rather, it puts the giver’s need to be recognized as exceptional ahead of the giving itself.
“It can feel thoughtless to buy what someone has asked for or what a website might suggest,” Norton said. “But if it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a year, but I don’t want or need, then it doesn’t work.”
It doesn’t have to cost money
The more personal a gift is, the better, Langer suggests, and that doesn’t mean givers have to spend a lot of money or time to achieve that.
“Handmade gifts are the best, personalized gifts,” Langer said. “If the person in question hates cooking, maybe you give them coupons to redeem for you to make dinner. That’s a gift that says I care about you and I thought about what you want, and it takes all of five seconds.”
But Norton cautions givers to avoid what he calls the “IKEA effect,” or the idea that people who make gifts often see their handmade items as being as valuable as anything they could buy.
“It’s fine to make things for yourself, it’s when you think that other people will really like the junk you made that there’s a problem,” Norton said. “When someone asks you for a Starbucks gift card and instead you give them some terrible mug that you made, that’s not taking their wants into consideration.”
“The best piece of advice I could give is to buy experiences for others, particularly if it’s an activity you can do with them,” Norton said. “They will enjoy the experience and the memories are a gift you gave.”
Research from San Francisco State University found in 2014 that people who spent money on experiences and not objects were happier overall and felt their money was better spent.
But it doesn’t have to be an extravagant vacation, Norton said. It could be as simply as a cooking class or something the recipient has never done before.
“The initial thrill of giving (an experience) wears off quickly,” Norton said, “but the experience lasts.”
Asking is OK — if the timing is right
When it comes to giving a gift, Norton and Langer say many people shy away from asking people in their lives what they want.
“I always tell people it isn’t tragic to ask. It depends on the person,” Langer said. “If I gave a gift to somebody who has very specific tastes, he’d be glad I asked. But then you have other people like me, who have no idea what they want, so asking them is a burden.”
The key to asking people for gift ideas is timing — too close to a holiday or their birthday and it seems like little thought goes into it. But there’s nothing wrong with getting a general idea of a gift recipient’s desires ahead of time.
“A lot of people feel like asking someone for a gift idea is transactional and that might be true if you’re asking on Dec. 23,” Norton said. “But it can be best to ask them what they want throughout the year or notice what they remark on rather than going rogue.”
The worst thing a person can do, Langer said, is to tell someone not to get them a gift.
“This happens with parents of adult children a lot. They don’t want them to bother,” Langer said. “But that’s a mistake because they deny their children the gift of giving. And that’s the greatest gift there is.”