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Education > Gifting: Pleasures of a Little Give and Take

A late summer baseball game is interrupted by an untimely commercial, “Now is the time to start saving for Christmas.” Decorations for Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanza often appear on the shelves before Halloween candy. Websites like http://Christmaswishlist.net allow users to send their every material want and need in list format to anyone with access to a computer. That site operates 365 days a year. The over-commercialization of holidays like Christmas is as blatant as your neighbor’s over-the-top team of inflatable reindeer. A 2005 survey by the Center for A New American Dream found that four out of five American adults think the holidays are too materialistic. And the spending doesn’t stop when the lights come down. Between Valentine’s Day, Administrative Assistants’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, birthdays, graduations, and bar mitzvahs, the nagging “need to give” follows us year-round.

For many, the solution appears to be simply to opt out. In exchange for not receiving gifts on specials days, some people free themselves from the obligations of reciprocity. Although opting out seems to have immediate positive effects on the wallet, psychologists warn that it may be a detriment to relationships and happiness.

Why opting out seems like a sweet deal:
We’re tired of the “gift that keeps on costing.” Finances are tight and people are finding themselves worrying not only about how many mouths they have to feed, but how many presents they have to supply. The ever-astute Mark Twain put it best, “Most people spend money they don’t have, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” Even during the worst of the economic recession, the average American shopper spent 1 on holiday shopping in 2008. Google that amount and you’ll find that is about the cost of a month’s rent for a small apartment outside Atlanta or a year of dental insurance for an average size family. And that’s only the holiday spending of one adult shopper.

Why do we feel pressured to give so much? At the core of over-spending is the dreaded cycle known as reciprocity. “Well, I have to buy them something because they bought me something.” “Well, they spent so much on Susie, we should get Timmy something nicer.” “That was so thoughtful of them, I should send them something.” You buy because they buy, prompting them to buy again. Wasn’t this whole thing supposed to be about the thought or gesture rather than the price?

Why opting out is a bad bargain:
Psychologists believe that the act of gift giving is a mandatory part of close relationships. The gift is a physical manifestation of a bond, and that bond grows when acknowledged. And, although you may feel your relationship is strong whether or not you receive a gift, you may be doing the giver harm by shutting down the exchange. According to Harvard professor, Ellen J. Langer, opting out “doesn’t do a service to the relationship. If I don’t let you give me a gift then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.” Holidays, by definition, are meant to be celebrated. The unfortunate reality is when you opt out of giving, you may really be opting out of the celebration all together. Will you make a special trip to see a friend on her birthday if you don’t have a gift in tow? Will children be as excited on Christmas morning if they find a tree with no gifts beneath it?

Your best bet is something money can’t buy:
This idea isn’t new. The Beatles have been insisting “Money can’t buy me love” since 1966. But, the solution lies in a bit of advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson about 100 years earlier, “The only gift is a portion of yourself.” These gifts: services (massages, homemade meals, dog-walking), artistic creations (songs, paintings, a poem, a hand-made item), small favors (babysitting, responding in a time of need), memories in the making (new traditions, time spent together), all have the advantage of being truly one of a kind. Now before you worry that your time is as precious as your money, remember that not all personal gifts require hours of one-on-one time, but they do require some thoughtful consideration.

If you must purchase, get the most bang for your buck:
We’ve all watched a toddler rip into a pricey gift only to discard it seconds later in favor of the container. Likewise, there is no disappointment quite like watching a loved one feign excitement over a gift you put a lot of thought and effort into. Avoid the dreaded “oh….thanks” by choosing gifts that reflect the recipient’s taste, rather than your own.

1. Do your research.
Take precautions not to buy something someone already has. Seek out the advice of others if necessary. The tradition of department store Santas arose out of salespeople dressing up to find out what children wanted and then directing parents to the appropriate area. If you are going to buy something you don’t know much about, consult others in the know. Gifting a photography buff with a desired specialty lens is more likely to be met with delight than another camera that he neither needs nor wants.

2. Make it personal.
It really is the thought that counts. A gift can be a treasure when it comes from the heart. Personalization makes it even more special. Gift cards may be a great option for the hopelessly idea-less, but a gift usually means more if it proves how well you know someone. Do a little homework. What are their favorite colors? Do they have any daily routines? Do they engage in hobbies or activities? Which actors or authors do they especially enjoy? What special memories do you share? When in doubt, a framed photo is always appreciated, especially when it captures a happy time shared by the two of you.

3. Present your presents well.
According to Sherri Athay, founder of Present Perfect Gift Consultants, creativity is “a great way to make gifts more memorable.” Lifestyle expert Alison Deyette advises, “Don’t just give the bouquet of flowers in its original store wrapping – buy an inexpensive but interesting vase. Dress up that bottle of wine! Add a message to the cake.” Pass down a family heirloom and attach a note explaining the significance of it.

4. Give experiences.
Toys break or are quickly outgrown. Fads fade. Experts recommend giving adventures like trips (even if it’s just to a new restaurant or theater) whenever possible. According to Deyette, “If the experience is custom-tailored to and enjoyed by the recipient, it will be remembered and reflected on for years to come.” An added bonus? “If the positive experience is shared by the giver and recipient, it brings them closer.”

No matter when you read this, yet another special event is inevitably around the corner. As you head to the cash register, consider taking the “me” out of the gifting equation. Although it is a natural desire to expect something in return, Tracy Ryan of Virginia Commonwealth found that giving gifts to a pet is even more enjoyable than giving to another person. Why? Because the pressure of reciprocity is lifted. The joy of giving to a pet is the simple joy of knowing you are aiding their comfort and happiness — of making them feel loved and cared for.
Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man and advocate for a fully gift economy, defines true gifts as “things we give away without an expectation of return. If we do expect something back in exchange, even if it’s counting on an expression of gratitude, we ruin the gift.”

It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but if someone does give you a gift, make your pleasure and your gratitude apparent. Model the sweater, taste the jam, play the CD, fawn over the photo album. Savor the gesture and the thought that someone cares enough about you to favor you with a gift. And, it may be old-fashioned, but send a hand-written thank you note by snail mail. Your appreciation of their gift or effort expands their joy of giving.
“It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving."
Mother Teresa

“Giving whether it be of time, labor, affection, advice, gifts, or whatever, is one of life's greatest pleasures.”
Rebecca Russell

2010 New Perspectives. Permission to copy this article is granted provided the author is notified and the following bio information is included:

Kathleen Passanisi, PT, CSP, CPAE is an internationally recognized professional speaker, therapeutic humor expert, healthcare professional, and author. A proud member of the NSA Speaker Hall of Fame, she has spoken to bazillions of people about life balance, wellness, the power of perception, women’s issues, and the link that exists between humor and health. For more information on Kathleen’s presentations, books, SPARK magazine, and products, please visit the New Perspectives website at www.kathleenpassanisi.com.

Annie Passanisi, co-creator of SPARK magazine, is a Chicago-based actor, singer, writer, marketer, and polka dot enthusiast. Her passion for applied positive psychology has led her to join her award-winning professional speaking mother on the platform. For more information, please visit www.TheAnniePassanisi.com.

Looking for something different? Have Kathleen and Annie co-present for you.