Goal Setting

How to Give Meaningful Gifts

Presenting alot of gifts“Money can’t buy happiness,” they say. If that is true, it has awkward implications for gift-giving this time of year.

Isn’t that the whole reason we flock to stores and brave crowds, clutching wish lists? To buy our loved ones happiness? We gather gifts with visions of their excitement in our minds. We picture them using their gifts throughout the year. It gets us through the madness and mile-long lines.

And now we’re told that we can’t purchase cheer, after all?

On the hunt for meaningful gifts this year, I’ve been taking this question to heart, and digging up social science research on what sorts of things contribute to happiness. It looks like we really can buy happiness, according to the experts. Ours AND other people’s. But it depends on what we buy.

On the happiness spectrum, here’s where different types of purchases typically fall:

Experiences: Happy

Material things: Happyish

Clutter: Not happy

In a study published last year called “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right,” researchers found that experience-based purchases produced the most long-term happiness.

We have a happiness baseline, they say. And while material items tend to boost our good mood a little, we return to the baseline quickly. The reason: material objects are easy to get used to.

So it seems like something that adds luxury to someone’s everyday life would be precisely the gift that keeps on giving. But it’s not.

An experience-based gift, on the other hand, doesn’t fade into the background. If it creates pleasant memories, the happiness produced lasts longer and the memories are recalled often. So, if you have $10,000 to drop on a loved one, it’s better to ignore all those dazzling red bow-topped cars in commercials and spend the money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience instead.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a vacation, and it doesn’t have to carry a big price tag. Going sledding, baking cookies, playing Guitar Hero—just about anything you do with a loved one can fall into the experience category.

Gifts that help people create their own experiences, such as something related to a project or hobby, may also boost their happiness. According to the principle of “flow”, doing activities that require engagement contribute most to a person’s sense of fulfillment.

For an added bonus, you can create a little suspense with a material gift. Or, if it’s an experience planned for the future, create some hype. Anticipation is a source of free happiness, psychologists say.

What Not to Give

Despite a survey showing that affluent women want gift cards from their husbands, giving gift cards is probably the least likely to make someone happy, depending on how they spend it. A gift card for an experience, such as a spa session or skateboarding lessons, would likely produce more happiness than a gift card to a store. An exception: money that you plan to spend together in an outing.

As for clutter? It’s tricky. These days, most people just go out and buy anything they want. So when buying for the “person who has everything,” we hunt down the most obscure kitchen novelty or tech gadget. But mess causes stress, says Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D. If you aren’t sure the knickknack will be a hit, there’s a risk that your gift will give them one more thing to organize, get distracted by or hide in junk drawers. In which case you might want to steer toward an experience-gift instead.

The bottom line: if you want to make someone the most happy, spend money on doing stuff with them, rather than buying stuff for them.

For all you practical sock-and-underwear givers out there (Mom), it’s something to think about.

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert


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