Last Christmas, my partner gave me an unusual gift: Inbox Zero.
He suggested it a few weeks before Christmas after hearing my ongoing complaints about and frustration with digital clutter. So he offered to unsubscribe, archive, and organize my thousands of emails and provide me with a strategy to keep my inbox clean. As a bonus gift, he also took my laptop, reinstalled the system, and updated all the software.
This might sound weird, intrusive, or way too practical to even be considered a “gift.” But to me, it was perfect. Here is why:
- It helped me improve in an area that I needed help with (as much as I consider myself a minimalist, digital clutter has always been a major bottleneck in my productivity).
- My partner paid attention to a real need of mine.
- He checked beforehand that this was something I wanted.
- He clearly enjoyed doing it.
Shallow Relationships Can Kill You — But You Can Fix Them
Research shows that 20 percent of Americans “rarely or never” feel “close to people,” 46 percent sometimes or always feel alone, and only around half claim to “have meaningful in-person social interactions.”
A different study shows that a lack of social relationships increases risk of death by all causes by 50 percent — the same increase seen among those who smoke 15 cigarettes a day.
Closeness in relationships is crucial for our health and well-being, and most of us don’t get enough of it.
I don’t think this happens because we are alone — most of us are constantly surrounded by people, either online, at the office, or in the streets of our neighborhood. I think it happens because we don’t know how to connect deeply with people around us — and often the hardest challenge is to connect with those closest to us, such as our family members.
The good news is that creating new meaningful connections is all a matter of practice. Going out to meet people. Learning the art of deep conversation. Reading good books on the subject and applying the concepts they present in real life.
Recently I have been experimenting with one particular method of deepening my relationships: the act of exchanging powerful, effective, life-changing gifts.
A Few Principles for Offering Gifts that Will Change Your Life and Relationships
Since prehistoric times, people have been exchanging gifts as a way to boost happiness, offer appreciation, and cement interpersonal relationships.
However, although Christmas, birthdays, baby showers, and bar mitzvahs have kept the tradition alive for centuries, nowadays most of us already have so much stuff that it becomes hard to give or receive something that won’t become just another piece of clutter in a hidden corner of a forgotten cupboard.
We buy forgettable souvenirs because “it’s impolite” not to do so; we give stuff out of obligation, as an affirmation of social status, or with the expectation of getting something in return.
A few months ago, I started changing the way I offer gifts, using them to actively invest in my relationships, get closer to people’s hearts, and — in one way or another — change people’s lives.
The main takeaway I got from this exercise is this: The gift itself doesn’t matter that much. What’s truly powerful is the meaning it carries, the feelings it triggers, and the relationship it enhances. The gift is the medium — its purpose is to deliver a message.
In this article, I will share with you a set of principles that you can apply to transform your gifts into relationship boosters and personal development tools. These principles are most effective when applied to close relationships in which you want to invest, but some of them will be applicable to anyone — even strangers.
1. Make the Receiver Feel Seen — Truly Seen
There are several reasons why the hanging gardens of Babylon are considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: their colossal beauty, the innovation of their design, the role of Babylon in the birth of civilization, and the mystery of whether the place ever even existed.
However, what makes the place truly special is the story behind it: around 600 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar II’s wife Amytis missed the mountains and the plants of her homeland, so, as a gift, the king had the gardens built for her.
I’m not suggesting that you build a multimillion-dollar monument whenever a friend feels sad. However, just like Nebuchadnezzar did, tuning in to the other person’s feelings, desires, and personality and offering your gift as a response to them can make all the difference.
Most of us have experienced, at some point or another in our lives, the impact that empathy can have in our relationships and in our individual well-being. It feels amazing — and often incredibly healing — to be listened to, to be understood, and to know that our pain and joy matter to others.
In a society in which so much of the approval we get comes from empty social media likes, in which our friends pay closer attention to their phones than to our presence, and in which we so often feel pressured to please and live up to other people’s expectations, the gift of being seen (being known, being understood) has become a real commodity.
You can use this principle when offering gifts. How? It’s simple: focus your full attention on the person to whom you are offering the gift.
According to Nathan Novemsky, an expert on the psychology of judgment and decision-making at Yale University, givers often focus on the perceived desirability of the gift they offer because they expect to be appreciated for it. However, more than creativity and uniqueness, receivers value convenience, feasibility, and ease of use in a gift — so this often leads to disappointment.
It’s okay to be thanked when you give a great gift — and even to enjoy it — but don’t make it your focus. Let it be a side effect instead. Don’t focus on what the gift says about you; focus on what it creates for the other person.
The simplest way to make sure you do this is by gathering information about the person to whom you’re offering the gift — in other words, getting to know him or her better.
You can do that by paying attention to the receiver’s behaviors, likes, dislikes, requests, wishlists, habits, and traits. And here’s the best thing about this practice: sometimes, just by paying attention to people and asking them questions, you’re already giving them much more than what they usually receive from other people in their life.
If you want to go even further and really have an impact on a person, strengthen your research by writing down a list of keywords and ideas. Seeing the information on paper might trigger ideas that you wouldn’t think of otherwise.
The other way to go about it — especially if the person is not into surprises — is to just ask the recipient what he or she wants. One study shows that a lot of people prefer getting the gifts they’ve explicitly requested — after all, what could be a better proof that you know them and care about their desires?
2. Make It Mutual
As Stephen Covey said, “The key to life is to serve other people — that is the source of true happiness, not pleasure.”
In religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, selfless service — giving freely and authentically without expecting anything in return—is considered a necessary practice for those seeking enlightenment .
Therefore (and somewhat paradoxically), authentic giving becomes one of the most liberating and joy-inducing behaviors we can have as humans. It is not uncommon for people to experience a stronger and longer feeling of happiness when giving than when getting something.
But the best thing about giving is that since we are highly empathetic beings, the happier the giver feels, the more the receiver will pick up on that happiness and therefore the more he or she will enjoy the gift.
One way to reinforce your happiness as a giver is to have fun with the process of preparing, planning, offering, or buying a gift.
For example, last year I prepared a Christmas treasure hunt as a gift for my family. I started preparing it weeks in advance, dropping some hints here and there, and soon everyone started picking up on my excitement before they even knew what I was up to. This led me to dedicate even more time to the hunt and to make it better and more complex, and when the day came, it was one of the best experiences we had ever had together as a family.
You can use the power of building anticipation to boost the excitement around a gift (just be careful not to raise expectations too high and create disappointment). If your gift is a surprise activity, for example, you could ask the recipient to be available to do “something special” on that day.
If you’re thinking that it’s absurd to overthink something as simple as offering a gift, consider that it’s not the one-off event that matters: it’s the compound effect of our small interactions that together make up the essence of our relationships. Just like having an important conversation or giving a friend a space to share his or her feelings, gifts are small landmarks in our relationships; they are both symbols and opportunities, and their power depends on the emotions we decide to attribute to them.
3. Bring Out the Best in Them
The only thing that people enjoy more than being seen is being recognized for something they’re really good at.
A while ago, someone very close to me who’s been working a job he dislikes for over 30 years and doesn’t have that much fun in his life in general showed me some landscape pictures he had been taking on his phone.
Some of them were really cool, which I pointed out, together with the suggestion that he exhibit them — which he took half as a joke, half as an expression of his heart’s deepest desire. Clearly, his talent had never been recognized by anyone before. His face lit up, and he proceeded to show me more pictures for a good while.
So I decided to offer him a gift: I created an Instagram account for him; selected some of his best pictures; came up with a name, a topic, a message, and a few hashtags; and posted them. Since then, he’s been publishing his pictures daily, going to new places to take new photographs and talking to people about it. I’ve never seen him happier.
No matter how discreet, joyless, or self-deprecating someone might be, he or she has talents, virtues, and good traits, whether they come in the form of a way with words, a talent for karaoke, a passion for volunteer work, or cooking skills.
Next time you’re offering someone a gift, ask yourself: “What do I really appreciate about this person that he or she would like to be recognized for?”
Then offer him or her a gift that enhances that: a notebook for writing poetry, a ticket for a singing workshop, or a gourmet cookbook.
Instead of applying this principle to the receiver only, you can also enhance something good about your relationship with that person — especially if it’s someone close to you.
Some of the best traits of my relationship with my partner are fun, physical intimacy, and mutual growth. I wanted to increase our awareness of these traits, so I offered him a “bag of happiness,” which contained around 200 papers with jokes and memories we had together, vouchers for massages, thought-provoking questions, challenges, and more.
The main takeaway from this principle is this: powerful gifts enhance qualities instead of fixing faults.
That means not giving your kid toys every week to compensate for your absence as a parent but instead finding more time to be with him or her and then learning what toy he or she would really enjoy receiving.
Use gifts as symbols of goodness, as positive enhancers, and as closeness generators, and let them be the triggers to help other people love themselves (and you) more.
4. Money, Time, or Energy: Choose Your Resources Wisely
Let’s forget about the gifts themselves for a moment.
Instead, let’s focus on what makes gifts great: the value we attribute to them.
Despite what most of us may think, one study has found that expensive gifts are not perceived as more enjoyable by the receiver. Just because you spend a lot of money to please someone doesn’t mean that he or she will enjoy your gift more.
This gives us a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing our resources. Here are three of the most commonly used resources in gift-giving:
When you choose which of those resources you will use to attribute value to your gift, take two things into account:
- The preferences of the receiver and your relationship with him or her
- What you can/feel like giving
Different people have different ways of perceiving value in things they receive. This is especially noticeable for people in relationships. In his book The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman distinguishes five main ways that people like to be shown love:
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of service
- Receiving gifts
- Quality time
- Physical touch
I believe that this framework can, to a certain extent, be applied to all relationships (with certain reservations for physical touch — I’m not so sure all your coworkers would be into unexpected kisses or casual back rubs). But what I am asking you to consider is the possibility that sometimes the things that might seem the most insignificant or small to you can have the greatest impact.
A few months ago at a dinner party, my friend received over 20 gifts, including a flower-themed calendar, an animal-themed calendar, a box full of beauty products (which, if you really knew her, you’d know she doesn’t use), a set of candles, and a few more calendars.
I didn’t buy her anything. Instead, I grabbed a few A4 pages, sewed them together into a little book, sat at my desk with a cup of tea and some music playing in the background, and proceeded to pour my heart out onto those pages through emotional sharing, honest appreciation, and letting out some things I had been wanting to say for years but had never found the courage to voice.
When she read my letter at the dinner party, tears started falling down her face. She asked me if she could show it to her husband and later told me that they still reread it together sometimes as a happy, meaningful, personalized bedtime story.
If you don’t want to spend money, you can instead take the time to craft or prepare something such as an experience, a piece of art, or a personalized surprise — again, don’t forget to take the person’s preferences into account.
If you don’t have time or money, offer your undistracted presence. Cheer up the party. Give a speech. Say something that means a lot and that will make a difference. Or just choose the simplest way to make someone happy: listen, hold space, be there for them.
The best thing about this is that you don’t need to wait for special occasions in order to give gifts: you can apply this principle to your everyday interactions. Make giving a routine, and you’ll see how it changes your life and that of those around you.
5. Give It a Meaning
What makes the Statue of Liberty one of the most famous gifts in history? Apart from its enormous size, estimated price, and complexity of assembly, what truly makes this statue memorable is its meaning: the commemoration of the alliance between France and the United States during the American Revolution and the freedom and democracy it symbolizes.
Just like a great book, a gift is as powerful as the message it carries. So if you want to make your gifts truly memorable, before you offer them, think about what you’re trying to convey with them.
One of the principles in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin with the end in mind.” In other words: before you act, define your goal, your mission, and your intentions to make sure that your actions will take you where you want to go.
Now apply this principle to gifts: give your gifts depth by providing them with an intention or meaning. Gifts can be used to express gratitude, to show love or support, to bring aesthetic beauty to someone’s life, to share something personal and trigger closer connection, to generate laughter and humor, to help someone with a specific need (whether by offering something as practical as a kitchen appliance or helping solve a personal dilemma), to apologize, to confess, to express appreciation, and to do so much more.
My partner and I usually exchange gifts that help us develop synergy and closeness in our relationship or boost our personal development as individuals.
For his birthday, I made him a deck of 10 cards aimed at cultivating awareness, emotional strength, and focus by prompting his attention to return to the present moment. All he had asked me for was a few bookmarks for his journal, but I went the extra mile by contributing to two of his main interests, mental training and personal development.
Give More, Give Better, Be Happier
What makes gifts truly memorable are the circumstances around them and the feelings behind them. A wedding ring is powerful because it is offered together with someone’s request to spend his or her life with you.
In other words, it’s not about the gift itself: it’s about crystallizing moments and feelings in a productive way — that is, to promote closeness, happiness, and deeper relationships.
Use gift-giving as an excuse to bring more joy and meaning to your life and relationships. You don’t need to wait for someone’s birthday or for a special occasion — you can apply the principles in this article to any conversation, event, or interaction. Give more, and give better, and happiness will inevitably follow.