What’s in a Gift? A Guide to Meaningful Gift Giving

It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. We’ve already had our second snowstorm of the season and it isn’t even December. The first snowstorm left a good several inches of snow on the ground. By comparison, this snowstorm makes the previous snowstorm look like child’s play. This is the real deal.  We’re talking three, maybe four, feet of snow and still falling. The joys of living in the snow belt! But aside from the fact that walking is well nigh impossible (trust me, I gave it a try), it looks beautiful. White, pristine, peaceful. And abundant. Very abundant.IMG_0697

So what better a time, I thought, to begin thinking about the holidays. Whatever holiday you might celebrate, most have come to involve an exchange of gifts. The problem is that what is meant to be a beautiful time of family, friends, contemplation, and gratitude can quickly spiral into a big stress fest where the bigger and more expensive the gift the better – and so the gift giver finds it stressful as does the gift getter (hey, that rhymes! Suessical). You can end up with debt, mountains of stuff you don’t really want or need, and tense family exchanges. Not cool. Not festive.

So what can we do to give gifts that make everybody happy? In her book The Myths of Happiness (an extremely interesting and valuable read – I highly recommend), Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses the concept of money, gift giving, and happiness, and provides a few outlines about how to give meaningful, happiness-supporting gifts.

  1. Spend money on need-satisfying activities: Lyubomirsky identifies these as purchases that help satisfy feelings of competence in life, relatedness (belonging or connectedness), or autonomy (control over life). So a cooking or running course might qualify, or perhaps photography software for a budding photographer, or money towards a volunteer travel opportunity for someone who really wants to give back. In addition, Lyubomirsky notes that the most satisfying way to give gifts of ‘stuff’ is to make it good stuff – the stuff that supports what she calls a “gratifying hobby,” like sport gloves for a cycling enthusiast or knitting needles for your neighbourhood scarf-maker.
  2. Spend money on others: Lyubomirsky cites a study in which participants were given an envelope with $20; one group was told to spend it on themselves and the other to spend only a portion on themselves and to donate the rest to charity. At the end of the day, those who had donated a portion to charity reported feeling far happier and more satisfied than those who had spent it all on themselves. Giving to a charity doing work you value makes you feel good. Perhaps sit with your family or friends and identify such a charity. Give a portion of the money you might have spent on gifts to the charity, or perhaps all of it, and see how you feel. It is a worthwhile experiment!
  3. Spend money now but wait to enjoy it: Anticipation has its own power in bringing happiness and pleasure. The holidays will eventually end – it might be nice to have something planned for or redeemable later, like a trip, spa visit, or workshop.
  4. Spend your money on experiences rather than possessions: gifts like these can cost money or be free, but they include things like classes, workshops, experiences together (hikes, volunteering), trips, lessons, movies, coffee times, concerts, and so on.
  5. Spend your money on many small pleasures rather than a few big ones: According to Lyubomirsky, research suggests that all gifts and pleasures result in a happiness boost, no matter the size of the gift (or pleasure). But that boost eventually fades. So it has been suggested that several smaller gifts would yield several occasions of happiness boosts where one large gift would just yield one. Thus, perhaps four gift certificates to the movies might result in greater satisfaction than one large screen TV. It’s all about the power of the small indulgence.

A few thoughts to consider as you contemplate your year-end celebrations. Next time I’ll follow-up with more gift giving suggestions.  Until then, stay warm!

Reading List: The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy but Doesn’t; What Shouldn’t Make You Happy but Does. Author: Sonja Lyubomirsky

© Eat Well, Live Vibrantly

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