How to Escape the Existential Dread of Gift-Giving

Social science says these tips on gift-giving help the giver as much as the recipient.

Practical household gifts and money or gift certificates are frequent purchases for people who don't know what to put under the Christmas tree. But there is a soul-sucking problem with being utilitarian, mainly that you may feel like you have no soul.

Happiness scientist Arthur Brooks explains how to get past the dread of being excessively useful while also getting by without spending a fortune.

The best gifts are, in fact, useless. By this I don’t mean worthless, but rather, valuable for the intrinsic satisfaction they bring as opposed to being a means to some other end. While economists are busy ruining their marriages with cash and blenders, marketing experts have long found that people get the most satisfaction from “useless” experiences that have emotional impact, like going on a beautiful bike ride. Researchers believe this is especially true for older people, who derive much more pleasure from experiences than possessions.

How to use this fact? Tell Grandma that you were planning to buy her a Mercedes, but after reading some social science research, you have decided to take her to the park instead. She might look a little disappointed, but no doubt in her heart she will be glad.

Of course, Brooks heads a nonprofit organization so his exception to that rule is giving a cash donation in someone's name to a charitable organization. Boring? Definitely, Utilitarian? Absolutely. Tax-deductible? Probably.

Another pro-tip he offers shoppers this holiday season is on "regifting," taking something you given to you and giving it to someone else.

Researchers showed in the journal Psychological Science in 2012 that we overestimate how offended people will be to learn that their gift was passed on to someone else. Participants in the study reported that if they gave someone an unwanted gift, they would prefer it be given away than thrown away outright. So that’s something.

Furthermore, there is a narrow range of circumstances in which regifting is not just tolerated but actively embraced. The key is to follow what I call the Fruitcake Principle: If you don’t value it, don’t regift it. Only pass on things you yourself own and authentically treasure.

Of course, if you want something, you probably don't want to give it away, but sharing something of sentimental value, even second-hand, is popular among gift recipients, according to research from Carnegie Mellon.

So if a friend gives you something you truly love and you think it will make someone else happy as well, feel free to regift it. On the other hand, if it’s a fruitcake, you’re fooling no one. Toss it.

Lastly, and this probably doesn't sound too shocking, a gift with little value, but beautifully presented has a nearly universal appeal.

in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers showed that some male spiders — Paratrechalea ornata, to arachnologists; “fuzzy brown ones” to the rest of us — give food gifts to prospective mates that are nutritionally worthless but wrapped ornately in the silk produced by their bodies. Imagine giving your beloved a chicken nugget meticulously wrapped in beautiful fabric, and you get the idea. Apparently for spiders, as for humans, it’s the wrapping that counts, because the worthlessness of the gift inside did not affect the receptivity of the female.

I shared this wonder of nature with my wife, who observed that while she has little hope for the quality of my gifts, I might learn a thing or two from the spiders about how to wrap them. I found this insensitive.

So, these three lessons should help with the hunt.

1) Give away useless stuff.

2) Regift only what you want to keep.

3) It's better the gift look good than be good.

What are your tricks for making sure you deliver a quality gift? Share your favorites.

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