It’s the thought that counts. Really?

If you haven’t done your holiday shopping yet, don’t fret.

Read this instead.

I guarantee it will make you feel better than the holiday movies on TV where the commercials are designed to make you feel anxious and behind.

I fell into the holiday movie trap yesterday (whoops). But halfway through I realized what was happening emotionally and turned off the tube. Instead, I researched gift-giving.

Here’s what science has to say.

Gift-giving is an act that has two elements. Finding a gift. And making sure it’s a good fit for the recipient. It’s also an ancient social custom and embedded in the human genetic pattern.

And although you may look forward to exchanging gifts with your loved ones this time of year, it’s worth asking: Is gift-giving good for the recipient? (Maybe.) How about for me? (It depends.) And is it really true that it’s the thought that counts? (No!)

Stay on the heart-forward side of life with these 5 insights from science.

1. The birds and bees do it

Yes, I’m talking about non-human gift-giving. It’s a biologically natural phenomenon across a range of species and targets. Even insects feel the need to get in on the giving — to each other, that is. So if an action as natural as generosity through gift-giving is done instinctively in non-human species, then figuring out what to give each other can’t be that hard, can it, people? Well, it turns out that it is. Here’s where things get complicated.

2. Gift-givers and gift-receivers have two different mindsets

Has your cherished one told you EXACTLY what they want? Then you are lucky, dear friend, because science says you should give them what they want. No need to take their request and go one better. They will be the most appreciative by having their request heard and acted on by you.

What about the Holiday Wish List? Research suggests that givers assume their gift (which was NOT on the receiver’s wish list) will be appreciated even more than one of the gifts on the list because it took that much more thoughtfulness to select. Don’t waste your time going off-list!! Receivers’ gratitude was higher for gifts actually on their list.(1)

Finally, what about sticking some cash in a card? Wouldn’t an actual gift card be better? NO. An incredible 85 percent of people ACTUALLY preferred getting $25 in cash rather than a $30 gift card.(2) And you thought giving cash was such an impersonal, last-choice kind of gift! Bottom line, science says to go practical and to give them what they’ve asked for.

But, if you’re one of the unlucky ones who don’t have a gift list from your beloveds, then what are you to do? Fear not, science to the rescue again.

3. People prefer experiences over material goods

It seems that money spent on experiences (e.g. trips, hobbies, workshops) rather than on material goods (e.g., iPads) can increase happiness.(3) One reason for this difference is that experiential gifts satisfy the psychological need for relatedness and connection, leading to further feelings of vitality and happiness.(4) Even if that gift doesn’t include you.

4. Personal connections are the ties that bind

If you’re going to go with an actual material product, then make sure it demonstrates a special connection you share with this person — like a nostalgic memory of a time you spent together. Gifts promote happy outcomes when they allow for a positive interpersonal connection with the recipient.(5) This explains why gifting a vacuum cleaner or an ironing board is a sure loser.

5. If you’re still stumped, donate in their name to a cause that reflects their interests.

Research shows that even charitable giving makes people happier.(6) And if you’d rather take the gift-giving focus off of one person at a time, then consider a few random acts of kindness or simply pay it forward this holiday season.

So think about what you’re really feeling when you set out to find the perfect gift for someone. Trust your intuition. It is helping you get your ego and mind out of the way, to create more room for your heart-forward gift-giving ideas.

Finally, if you’ve considered all of this, but still feel anxious about holiday gift selections, here’s a mindfulness practice from the NYTimes that you can use while shopping!

Happy Holidays!

Sources: 1,2-First Data, 2012
3,4,5,6-Nov. 2009, Journal of Experimental Social Psycholog

Images: NonProfit PRO, Happify

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