Spending money on other people makes us feel better than buying things for ourselves, according to studies in the burgeoning field of money and happiness. That ought to make the holiday season, in all its gift-giving glory, truly the most wonderful time of the year.
But research shows that gift givers often get it wrong, with even the most conscientious and well-intentioned almost comically bad at predicting what recipients want. Fortunately, there are five ways that science says you can wow the folks on your gift list and make yourself happier in the process.
1. Experiences Over Stuff
60% of the money holiday shoppers shell out for presents this year will go to buy clothing, toys and electronics. Only 27% plan to buy gifts of an experience, such as concert or show tickets or a restaurant meal.
Experiential gifts evoke greater emotion than material ones and it’s that emotional intensity that makes us feel more connected to the giver. If you’ve given me the gift of dinner at a restaurant or a museum membership or concert tickets, you associate the emotions you feel when you eat the meal, see the painting or listen to the music with that person. There’re in your head.
In choosing the best kind of experience to give, it’s smart to consider the age of your recipient. Younger people associate happiness with exciting or extraordinary activities, while older people find contentment in calming options and more ordinary pursuits.
2. Tie Stuff to Experiences
Not all material gifts are bad. If you connect a tangible present to an experience, you can get the same relationship bump as you would from giving a purely experiential offering.
To heighten appreciation of any tangible present you give, maybe write an accompanying note focusing on the experience it will provide. For example, if you buy your partner a TV, frame it as evenings watching your favorite shows together. Or for a waffle maker, highlight Sunday mornings relaxing with your family.
3. Give them What They Want
Givers often make a big mistake by trying to surprise people with presents they feel will highlight their thoughtfulness and knowledge of recipients, studies show. But if someone has told you what he or she wants, it’s best to honor that request.
To the giver, going rogue may mean, ‘I love you’ To the recipient, it’s just annoying; it means, ‘he never listens to me.’
4. Buy the Gift of Time
People feel happier when they spend money on time-saving services (like housecleaning or grocery delivery) than on material items such as clothes and wine, according to a 2017 study. Yet they’re often reluctant to shell out cash for this purpose, partly because they feel guilty about paying someone to do chores they dislike.
Gifts of time-saving services — like a week of take-out meals or babysitting — might make nifty holiday presents.
5. Make a Bigger Impact
Giving to charity makes you happy, especially if you believe your contribution will have a positive impact. Contributing to organizations with a specific, well-defined purpose and which routinely report back to donors on how their funds will be used have been associated with higher levels of happiness.
Happy holidays, everyone, and may everyone on your list get exactly what they want — and be happier for it.