5 Ways to Give Better Gifts, According to Science

Lessons from social psychology that can help take the stress out of holiday shopping — and help you give the presents that show you truly care.

Medically Reviewed
holiday gift on blue background
Giving gifts helps us bond. Pro tip: It’s really not about the price tag.Maryna Terletska/Getty Images

Holiday shopping and gift giving are hallmarks of the season for many of us. But that’s not to say the tradition doesn’t come without its stresses.

What does your sister, spouse, or parent actually want? Will the packages arrive on time? Are you spending too much or enough? (Spoiler alert: We spend a lot on holiday gift giving — Americans are expected to spend an average of $837 on presents this holiday season, a Gallup poll released earlier this month estimated.)

Step one in taking the stress out of holiday gift giving — or at least some of it — is remembering that the ritual is about more than the sweaters, socks, new bikes, or concert tickets.

Social connection contributes significantly to our happiness and well-being, and gift giving can help reinforce the ties that are important to us, says Michael Norton, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who specializes in studying how decision-making affects well-being.?“Gift-giving is a sign we care about the people in our lives,” Dr. Norton says.

His research, including a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has found that spending money on others predicts greater happiness than spending on ourselves.

And there’s evidence that giving our time and spending money on others is good for physical markers of health, too. Research suggests that spending cash on others may help lower blood pressure and boost cardiovascular health, a study published in June 2016 in the journal Healthy Psychology reported.

A study that used MRI scans to look at brain activity in people as they spent money on others (in this case, social causes they cared about) even found that the reward centers of the brain lit up more than when the study participants spent money on themselves. Those are the same reward centers that light up in response to food we like, sex, and drugs. The researchers behind that study concluded that our brains are to some extent wired to give to others.

The bottom line, Norton says: When done right, gift giving cultivates a stronger relationship between you and the recipient, showing you care and understand them.

So how do you pick out gifts that deliver all of those bonding, health-promoting effects? Here are some tips from Norton and others.

1. Choose Gifting Experiences Over Stuff

Experiential gifts (think concert tickets, an exercise class, or hosting a loved one for dinner) make the recipient feel closer to the giver, not just when they’re unwrapping their present but when they’re making use of the gift later. And that’s the case whether the experience is one you do with the recipient or not, according to a study published in April 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Just make sure that you know your audience and you’re choosing an experience you know they’ll like, says study coauthor Cassie Mogilner Holmes, PhD, professor of marketing at the University of California in Los Angeles. In Dr. Holmes’ study, participants were given $15 to buy a friend either an experiential or material gift. Turns out, friends who received experiential gifts like movie tickets or a gift certificate to a restaurant felt closer to the giver compared with friends who received gifts like a mug or a T-shirt.

“It’s all about the emotion that’s evoked when you’re consuming the gift — how much fun you’re having at the concert, how relaxed you feel dining at a nice restaurant. Those emotions are more intense than when you’re looking at a vase on your shelf,” Holmes says.

RELATED: Why Making Time for Holiday Traditions Is Self-Care, Too

2. Think of Long-Term Satisfaction

Ever received a quirky gift that collected dust in the back of your closet until you ended up donating it? This may be because we have a tendency as gift givers to want to give gifts that have a wow factor. But what makes a gift more valuable to the recipient is a gift that they’ll use over and over again. That’s according to a social psychology research review published in December 2016 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“The recipient is looking at the longevity of the gift and what they can do with it,” says study coauthor Jeff Galak, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at the Tepper?School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

That means don’t shy away from buying a practical gift that may not have shock value but will enrich your loved one’s daily life. “That coffee machine or those headphones you received and use every day are going to keep reminding you of the person who gave it to you,” Dr. Galak says.

3. Don’t Make It a Burden

Whether it’s an experience or a possession, make your gift convenient and easy to use. Unintentionally, many gift givers hand over a present that creates extra work for their recipient, says Nathan Novemsky, PhD, a professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut.

His research has shown that recipients prefer gifts they can use with ease. Participants in a study that included both gift givers and recipients got to choose between two gift certificates to Italian restaurants: a trendy one with glowing reviews that was an hour away from the recipient’s home or a local eatery that wasn’t as highly rated but was only five minutes away. Gift givers chose the upscale restaurant because it was perceived as more desirable, but recipients wanted the gift card to the restaurant that was closer to home.

Think of when you’ve received a gadget or tool that requires you to read a lengthy instruction manual before using it, a voucher to a spa that’s always booked, or a toy for your kid that requires a type of battery you definitely don’t have on hand.

“Before you buy that thing, ask yourself for a minute, what would it be like for you to get this. Would it be easy to use, or would it be a pain?” Novemsky suggests.

RELATED: Why Friendships Are So Important for Health and Well-Being

4. Follow Instructions

If the person you’re shopping for hands you a Christmas wish list, don’t go rogue. Norton says this is an honest mistake. Research suggests that the closer you are to the recipient, the more likely you are to stray from the registry to show the person just how thoughtful you are.

But at the end of the day, the recipient wants what they asked for, Galak says.

Other research from his team backs this up. According to a series of five experiments, researchers found that recipients are more appreciative of gifts they explicitly asked for than those they didn’t. Another finding from this data: Givers think money is an undesirable gift, which wasn’t true at all — recipients were happy to receive cash over the holidays.

5. Don’t Feel Pressure to Splurge

Don’t bother breaking the bank on gifts for your loved ones. Research indeed shows that spending more on a gift won’t get you extra brownie points with the recipient. One previous study had givers and receivers rate their perceived levels of appreciation for a range of gifts like jewelry, wine, and iPads. Across the board, givers thought expensive gifts would be appreciated more, but receivers didn’t care about price.

“You can’t give junk and hope for the best. But you don’t need to spend beyond your reasonable threshold because more expensive doesn’t mean better,” he says. Spend within what’s reasonable for your budget, Norton says.

RELATED: Why Giving to Causes You Care About Is Good for Your Health

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