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This Is The Secret To Giving The Perfect Gift, According To Psychology

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Photo by Miachel Breton / mbg Creative

The holidays are usually a time of excess, but this year we're proposing a new way to gift. Stay tuned for a curated list of products that epitomize the principles of mindbodygreen: environmental responsibility, community connection, and health benefits, to boot. To kick it off, we're diving deep into what giving really means anyway—and how to gift in a way that's truly meaningful.

Exchanging gifts has historically been a way to demonstrate affection and strengthen relationships—so why has it become so damn stressful? To kick off this holiday season, we're making it easier with tips to help you pinpoint the presents that'll bring the most joy to you and the person on the other end of the wrapping paper.

Let's get started by digging into the psychology behind gift-giving so you can avoid buying something that immediately gets tossed, which is as bad for the planet as it is for your ego.

Hate to break it to you, but most people are pretty bad at gifting—here's why.

At its core, buying a gift for someone is a guessing game. "Gift giving is basically an exercise in mind reading—and human beings aren't very good at mind reading," says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist who studies how time, money, and technology shape human emotion and the scientific advisor at Joy, a phone app that helps users assign a happiness value to various purchases.

Dunn explains that when most people need to get a gift, they start by considering what they themselves like. From there, they decide how to tweak their perspective to be more like the person they're buying for.

Dan Ariely, a New York Times best-selling author and behavioral economist, further breaks down this tricky thought process in the Wall Street Journal, writing, "The great challenge lies in making the leap into someone else's mind... We are all partial prisoners of our own preferences and have a hard time seeing the world from a different perspective." Research confirms this idea that adopting new perspectives is easier said than done, especially when you consider the fact that people's wants and needs are ever-changing.

And while it's true that sometimes it's the thought that counts, that's not always the case according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. "Gift givers tend to overestimate the extent to which recipients actually even consider the thought behind a gift. In general, they don't have a window into how much thought was put into it," Dunn says. In other words, givers tend to focus on the thought while recipients just focus on the gift.

Dunn adds that society's emphasis on politeness and gratitude only perpetuates the cycle of mediocre gifting. "People don't necessarily get accurate feedback into how much their gifts suck," she bluntly puts it, explaining that we are trained to disguise disappointment from an early age (fun fact: Girls tend to learn to do so a lot earlier than boys), which means a lot of us are walking around with a false sense of confidence when it comes to our gifting abilities. That's not to say that you should throw a fit the next time your co-worker gives you something you'll never use, but it's interesting to consider the social impact of these little white lies.

So how can we gift better?

Just like our psychology reveals what makes us subpar gift givers, it can also help us turn into better ones.

For example, when you know how hard it is to take on someone else's perspective, you can give yourself permission to seek outside help with gifting. "If you're buying from someone similar to you, that's where you're going to be most successful," says Dunn. "Even if you don't adjust appropriately, it doesn't really matter because if you like it, they'll probably like it too." So don't be afraid to ask for input from friends or family who share similar interests with the person you're buying for. Say, if you're struggling to decide what to get for your friend's child, ask your nephew who's a similar age about what's on their list that year for some inspiration.

That brings up the next secret to successful gifting: listening to what people actually want. While it may seem boring to get someone that sweater they explicitly asked for, at least that way you know they'll use it. If you don't want to question them directly, you can ask friends about anything they may have mentioned or even do some sleuthing on their public Amazon wish lists.

One safe bet that's usually a good present for everyone? Time. Have a friend who never gets a moment to herself? Pay for a babysitter for a night. Or gather a few people to go in on a group gift of hiring a house cleaner for her for the year. "People don't often think about those kinds of gifts, but they could be really cool because we have good evidence that they make people happier than material things," she says.

Approaching gifting from this more practical place can help you keep it meaningful and intentional—and it's something you can do all year round. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the duo behind the Netflix documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, discussed this idea at length in a recent podcast episode, saying, "Obligatory gift giving has become part of our culture. It's become one of the love languages. I don't think gift giving is a love language—I think contribution is. And contributing to other people's lives is just as meaningful outside of Christmas and birthdays."

Another gift category worth exploring this year is—you guessed it—experiences. In general, people seem to elicit more happiness from experiences than material things. That's because when you receive experiences, you have the initial thrill of learning about what you'll be doing, but unlike with physical items, that excitement lasts for days or weeks leading up to the event itself. There's also reason to believe that experiential gifts strengthen the relationship between gifter and giftee.

"The relationship improvements that recipients derive from experiential gifts stem from the intensity of emotion that is evoked when they consume the gifts rather than when the gifts are received," reads a report out of the University of Toronto. "Giving experiential gifts is thus identified as a highly effective form of prosocial spending." Like experiences, charitable donations also seem to elicit lasting happiness since people typically derive greater happiness from using money to benefit others versus themselves.

One more thing to consider.

Not only do experiences, donations, and practical gifts tend to make people happier, they're better for the planet too.

According to one 2017 survey, Americans spend up to $16 billion a year on holiday gifts that won't be used. When presents sit around to collect dust, it's a waste of the resources that went into them—so let's all try to be a little more curated with our gifting this year for the sake of our environment.

We're here to help. Everything you'll find in mbg's 2018 gift guides is responsibly produced and made to be cherished for years to come. Happy holidays!

Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.