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The Secret to Giving the Very Best Gifts

04 January 2022
The Secret to Giving the Very Best Gifts

Raj Persaud, M.D :
What is the essential psychology behind giving presents, as many do on Christmas Day?
Academic psychologists, if asked, would put the conundrum scientifically and say that the intention of Christmas presents is to raise the happiness levels in the person to whom you are offering a gift.
But how to maximize the chances that people will end up with something that truly makes them happy?
An emotional burden of Christmas Day becomes pretending to be pleased with your presents, while in actuality being frustrated at your family's seemingly incompetent efforts at reading your mind, despite all those clear signals you thought you had sent them.
But now some new research suggests you could save yourself a lot of money, and deliver much more happiness to your recipients, through an unexpected psychological technique that completely circumvents the problem of choosing exactly the right present.
How to maximize happiness when giving gifts
The secret, this research argues, lies in the fact you can psychologically divide gifts into two kinds-"occasion-based" and "non-occasion-based." This new study suggests that the happiness levels in a recipient hinge hugely on whether a gift is given to mark a special occasion or not, and this may not be in the emotional direction you might have expected.
Christmas presents would be considered occasion-based gifts, because gift exchanges are an expected part of the season's celebrations. If someone gives you a present on a day which is not your birthday, an anniversary, or Christmas or Valentine's Day-in other words, when the gift isn't associated with a special occasion on which gift exchanges are the convention-that would be referred to as a non-occasion-based present.
Occasion-based presents are much more common; in a survey conducted by Julian Givi at West Virginia University and Jeff Galak at Carnegie Mellon University, 85 percent of personally received gifts were occasion-based. These authors quote research finding that in 2019, U.S. consumers planned to spend, on average, $942 on winter holiday gifts, so a huge amount of money is invested at this time of the year in efforts to cheer up the people we are buying presents for. But this latest research suggests it would be a much better investment to focus more on giving presents at other times of the year, where there is no special occasion.
Julian Givi and Jeff Galak have found in their research that it is much easier to impact recipients' happiness with non-occasion-based gifts. The psychology behind this effect hinges on the fact that we all expect presents on special occasions like Christmas; therefore, our focus becomes how good the present is. Our emotional state shifts away from the sheer pleasure of receiving something. In particular, the psychology of special occasion days means we are not grateful for the fact of being given a gift at all.
The value of unexpected presents
However, on non-occasion days, because we were not expecting a present, the unanticipated gift raises our happiness levels much more, precisely because it was unexpected. The unforeseen nature of the present enhances its specialness because it signals that you really were thinking of the person you bought the present for, above and beyond the norm.
The authors of this study consider a gift spontaneously purchased and brought home for a significant other on an otherwise ordinary day; an item gifted from one sibling to another "just because"; or a "thinking of you" gift sent to a friend, as good examples of non-occasion presents.
It may be that the gift itself is a lot less important than the context in which it is given. You are much more likely to feel let down by gifts that are not as nice as you were expecting, or had hoped for, on a special occasion day. On a day when you weren't expecting anything, receiving a surprise gift really raises your spirits; it makes you feel more special.
Givi and Galak conclude that the caliber of a gift that is required to signal care and thus meet a recipient's expectations is much lower for non-occasion-based gifts than for occasion-based ones.
Expectations over gift quality mean that presents have to be at a quality level that sends a signal that the giver cares about you. Gift quality, then, must be above the minimum level that conveys a clear message of love. Gifts that signal attachment improve relationships.
The minimum level of gift quality that is required to send such a signal of care appears higher for occasion-based versus non-occasion-based gifts, because the recipient is unable to infer care from the mere act of gift-giving since it is a norm to give presents on occasions such as Christmas. On such days, then, gift quality becomes a strong determinant of whether the gift is sending a signal of care - and the minimum level of gift quality that is required to send a clear signal of care becomes relatively high.
On the other hand, in the case of non-occasion-based gifts, there is no occasion involved, and less of a norm for givers to deliver high-quality gifts.
When it comes to non-occasion-based gifts, it is entirely clear that the giver is voluntarily giving the gift, a fact which, in and of itself, suggests that they care about the recipient.
Basically, the spontaneous and unexpected gift is the most effective symbol of love.

(Raj Persaud, M.D., is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in private practice in the UK and is the author of The Mental Vaccine for COVID-19 - Coping with Corona: A Guide to Pandemic Psychology (Amberley Press).

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