5 Ways to Give Better Holiday Gifts, According to Science
Research suggests you may be buying bad presents, despite good intentions
Spending money on other people makes us feel better than buying things for ourselves, according to studies in the burgeoning field of money and happiness. That ought to make the holiday season, in all its gift-giving glory, truly the most wonderful time of the year.
But research shows that gift givers often get it wrong, with even the most conscientious and well-intentioned almost comically bad at predicting what recipients want. Fortunately, there are five ways that science says you can wow the folks on your gift list and make yourself happier in the process.
That could be welcome news if you’re anything like me and about 10 zillion other Americans who are stressed to eyeballs about all those presents you still have to get; the typical consumer plans to buy 15 holiday gifts this year, a Deloitte survey reports. Boomers will spend an average of $868 and Gen Xers an average of $935, according to a new Lincoln Financial Group survey.
A separate study found that eight of 10 shoppers admit that picking the right holiday present for everyone on their list makes them anxious. Which helps explain why 69 percent in a new SunTrust poll said they’d skip exchanging gifts this year if friends and family would agree to it.
“Being obligated to give and worrying about how people will react interferes with the happiness we typically feel at the pure act of giving,” says Michael Norton, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School and co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.
Here’s how to be happier about your holiday giving:
1. Favor Giving Experiences Over Stuff
Sixty percent of the money holiday shoppers shell out for presents this year will go to buy clothing, toys and electronics, Deloitte found. Only 27 percent plan to buy gifts of an experience, such as concert or show tickets or a restaurant meal.
Yet research shows that recipients are more likely to appreciate experiential gifts than material items, in keeping with a large number of studies indicating that experiences also make you happier than tangible possessions when you spend money on yourself.
In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants were given $15 to buy a friend either an experiential or a material gift and recipients were asked to rate the strength of their relationship with the giver before and after getting the present. Pals who received movie tickets, a pass to a dance class and other experiences felt closer to their friends after getting their gifts than those who’d gotten shirts, posters and wine aerators felt to theirs.
Other experiments in this study upheld the experiences-trump-stuff results no matter how much the gift cost; whether the giver and recipient were family, friends or acquaintances or whether the giver and receiver consumed the experience together.
“Experiential gifts evoke greater emotion than material ones and it’s that emotional intensity that makes us feel more connected to the giver,” says Cassie Mogilner Holmes, an associate professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and co-author of the study.
Holmes adds: “If you’ve given me the gift of dinner at a restaurant or a museum membership or concert tickets, I associate the emotions I feel when I eat the meal, see the painting or listen to the music with you. You’re in my head, whether you’re physically with me or not.”
In choosing the best kind of experience to give, it’s smart to consider the age of your recipient. Holmes and Norton have found that younger people associate happiness with exciting or extraordinary activities, while older people find contentment in calming options and more ordinary pursuits.
So, suggests Holmes, if you’ll be buying a restaurant gift card as a gift, you might choose a trendy hot spot for a younger recipient but a long-time favorite eatery for the older person on your list.
2. Tie Stuff to Experiences
Not all material gifts are bad. If you connect a tangible present to an experience, you can get the same relationship bump as you would from giving a purely experiential offering.
In one experiment, Holmes and Cindy Chan at the University of Toronto instructed participants to give friends coffee mugs either inscribed with the words “My Coffee Mug” or “My Coffee Time.” Those whose cups emphasized the experience of drinking java over the object they’d consume it in felt closer to the person who gave it to them.
To heighten appreciation of any tangible present you give, Holmes suggests writing an accompanying note focusing on the experience it will provide. She says, “If you buy your partner a TV, frame it as evenings watching your favorite shows together. Or for a waffle maker, highlight Sunday mornings relaxing with your family.”
3. Give ‘Em What They Want
Givers often make a big mistake by trying to surprise people with presents they feel will highlight their thoughtfulness and knowledge of recipients, studies show. But if someone has told you what he or she wants, it’s best to honor that request.
A Southern Methodist University/University of Texas at Austin study found that friends were happiest when they got gifts they asked for rather than alternatives.
"To the giver, going rogue means, 'I love you,'" says Norton. "To the recipient, it's just annoying; it means, 'he never listens to me.'"
4. Buy the Gift of Time
People feel happier when they spend money on time-saving services (like housecleaning or grocery delivery) than on material items such as clothes and wine, according to a 2017 study by Norton and four other researchers. Yet they’re often reluctant to shell out cash for this purpose, partly because they feel guilty about paying someone to do chores they dislike.
Norton thinks it stands to reason, then, that gifts of time-saving services — like a week of take-out meals or babysitting — might make nifty holiday presents.
Although he doesn’t have direct data yet, a related study looked at spouses or partners who buy time for each other. “For women in particular, it’s a pretty big predictor of relationship satisfaction,” Norton says.
Just pick your gift-of-time recipient carefully. Notes Norton: “I’m not sure whether a co-worker would think a gift of a cleaning service is nice or judgmental, but it certainly seems to work within couples.”
5. Make a Bigger Impact
Making a charitable donation on someone’s behalf is a thoughtful way to show you care and do good at the same time, right? Actually, not so much.
Givers overestimate how much people appreciate socially responsible gifts, especially for friends they’re not close to, according to a 2015 study from the University of Southern California, Harvard and Duke.
Recipients prefer a gift they can actually use. So get your gym pal or co-worker a gift card to Amazon or some other versatile retailer and donate to a worthy cause in your name.
Giving to charity makes you happy, studies show, especially if you believe your contribution will have a positive impact. Contributing to organizations with a specific, well-defined purpose and which routinely report back to donors on how their funds will be used have been associated with higher levels of happiness in studies by Norton and others.
Happy holidays, everyone, and may everyone on your list get exactly what they want — and be happier for it.