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  • Adri Sandoval

One Simple Trick: How to Give Good Gifts

I can remember from a very young age asking my mom what gift I could give her for her birthday or Christmas and getting a nothing answer back. "You don't have to get me anything!" "I don't need gifts." My least favorite was, "Good grades."

C'mon, mom.

Even at a young age, nothing gave me more joy than to hand her a piece of construction paper sopping wet with glue and covered in glitter and macaroni noodles, then watching her smile at the mess. As I got older, I spent the money I earned working minimum-wage after-school jobs on jewlery she never wore or clothes she didn't really like. In those moments she would smile but it wouldn't be the reaction I had hoped for.

Gifts are about the recipient. But gifting is a shared experience between you and your loved one. There's something really magical about the moment you see someone's eyes light up when you get them exactly what they wanted, and know that YOU brought them that joy.

On the other hand, there are people who have been so disappointed by the reactions they've gotten that they don't even bother gifting anymore. I know a couple who have disappointed each other year after year with birthday and anniversary gifts, the husband has given up even buying anything. Last time I offered a hint, he said, "Why bother? She doesn't like anything I get her anyway." It doesn't come so much from a place of anger as a place of hurt.

Gifting should feel good. Luckily, there have been multiple studies proving that there is one surefire way to delight both yourself and your giftee. Follow these tips and learn how to give good gifts every time.

How to Give Good Gifts

Some of us work ourselves into a tizzy trying to find THE perfect gift for our loved ones. Even if you do manage to find the gift you think they'll fall in love with, you might just be setting yourself up for disappointment if you don't get the big, breathtaking reaction you wanted.

The number one way to give a gift you know they'll love? Get them exactly what they asked for, or what they need.

It might sound lame - you may miss out on the thrill of the "surprise" of "what's in the box?" But if the gift is truly for the person receiving, don't worry so much about surprising them. Studies have shown that those receiving didn't place as much value on "surprise" as the ones doing the gifting.

Of course, if you have a loved one like my mother, it might be hard to figure out what it is that they want. They play their cards close to their chest. Or they feel bad for "telling you" what to get them. But it's been proven: knowing exactly what your recipient wants and getting it for them is the best way to guarantee they'll like their gift.

Further, we don't have to try to figure out something they'll have a ton of fun with when it'd be easier to fill an obvious need. In a study on whether people preferred giving/receiving "fun" gifts or more "useful" gifts, researchers found a huge disconnect: most people preferred giving fun gifts, but on the other hand, most people ALSO preferred receiving useful gifts.

"Participants described the best gift they had ever given and ever received and indicated how fun and enjoyable and how useful and necessary each was. People believed the best gift they have given is more hedonic than utilitarian, but this effect is attenuated for the best gift received... Further, this difference held regardless of whether the other person in the exchange was a close other or a causal acquaintance, and was not driven by how material or experiential the gift was. ...Recipients want their friend to take utilitarian factors into account more, and hedonic factors less, than givers do" Sometimes It’s Okay to Give a Blender: Giver and Recipient Preferences For Hedonic and Utilitarian GiftsElanor F. Williams, Emily L Rosenzweig

Real Life Example: Good Gift, Bad Gift

Here's a real-life example: last Christmas my boyfriend had no idea what to get me, and seemed intimidated by the task. He always says, "You're so good at giving gifts. I'm not." So I made it easy on him - I had already read articles on this study and wanted him to feel good about gifting if he was going to. It was a little difficult - I had my mother as an example as a kid and always felt that the only response to "What should I get you?" ought to be "You don't have to get me anything!"

That's not so and we should all stop doing that.

I sent him three links to specific items on Amazon - a pair of ASICS running shoes, a pair of Tommaso cycling shoes, and a tube of face moisturizer from Paula's Choice. I told him the exact sizes and colors to make it as easy as possible. He picked two things from my list of three and when we opened gifts, I was overjoyed. I have since worn both pairs of shoes almost daily since. Honestly, it was difficult. I resisted the urge to say it multiple times but it did finally slip out: "I feel SO BAD for 'telling you' what to get me!" But he insisted it was better this way. And because I know he cares about me, I knew it was something I could do for him - take the pressure off and give him a great shot at giving me a great gift.

On the other hand, he didn't want anything specific. He had mentioned needing a new wallet and I could see his running shoes were getting a little worn down. So I checked the size on his old shoes when he wasn't looking and ordered a personalized wallet for him. However - I made a few mistakes. I did not check the dimensions of the wallet and it was much bigger and bulkier than the one he has had for years and loves. Also, I got a different brand of shoes based on a recommendation from a friend who was buying her husband a pair.

Result? He didn't like either gift. He used the wallet a few weeks until he decided to switch back - he liked the way it looked but not the way it felt to sit on it. The shoes didn't make it even a day. The sizing was off, they were bulkier than he liked, and not comfortable for him. I didn't sulk - I just returned them. And I'm glad I did because I found out just a few weeks ago that the comedian Marc Maron actually broke his foot (toe? leg?) and blames the exact brand of shoes I bought.

This could have been avoided had I gotten him new replacements of the exact items I already knew he loves - but I wanted to surprise him. The surprise turned out to be no actual gifts for Christmas. Come next occasion, I will be insisting that he send me links to exactly the things he wants.

Tips on How To Give Good Gifts

Again - not everyone will want to tell you exactly what they want. They hoard their secrets like a secret-hoarding-dragon. You can't fight them for the knowledge, but there's a few things you can do to try to get them to confide in you.

1. Explain What It Means to You to Give a Good Gift

Simple: "It makes me happy to see that something I got you makes you genuinely happy." We've all been on the giving-side of a gift, and most people will understand what it feels like to want to please someone else with the perfect present. Let them know that the gift is for them, but the experience of giving them joy is for you. And if they still refuse, a strong "LET ME HAVE THIS!" might help.

2. Pay Attention

It's not unusual for someone to point out something they like in an off-handed way with no expectation. I keep a list in my phone of things my boyfriend has seen on TV or while we were out that he said he thought was cool or wishes he had. When I ask what kind of gift he'd like and he can't give me an answer, I will refer back to this list. Some of these are small items I can just pick up while I'm out to let him know I was thinking of him. Others are going to have to be birthday or Christmas gifts.

Tip within a tip: write down EXACTLY what it is or you're going to get a too-big wallet and bone-breaker shoes. I have decided to start being more detailed with the items I put on this list since last Christmas.

3. Ask Them to Keep Their Own List

Ask them to send you a link to an Amazon wishlist and tell them to add things to it when they see something they might like. Remind them: you want to make them happy when you give a good gift, but maybe you don't want to keep asking every time a birthday or holiday rolls around.

I keep one I can send friends and relatives and another for things I'd rather buy for myself. Around Christmas, when relatives start asking me what my son wants, I can send them the one I keep for him (which is mostly LEGO and video games - but exact ones he said he wanted.) These lists have items at different price points so I know I'm not over-or-under-doing it when I request something. There are items over $100, and items under $10, and several at price points in between. Friends and family can choose anything at a price where they feel comfortable, and I am always thankful anyone thought to get me anything at all.

Before you pick anything off a list like this, it might be best to double-check with your recipient - "Hey, you put this rubber duck on your Amazon wishlist some time ago. Do you still want that?"

4. Don't Deviate from Their List

It can take a lot for someone to tell you exactly what they want, and it'll be double disappointment for them to tell you and you ignore their request. Maybe the things on their list are not to your taste, or you don't see the point of owning those things. The gift itself is not about you - for you, your reward is their reaction. It won't be any reward at all if they are visibly disappointed or are faking their enthusiasm.

5. Gift an Experience

Studies have shown that many gift recipients genuinely preferred receiving an experience rather than an object. Quality time spent enjoying something together is gifting a memory shared between the two of you. Experiences don't have to be big, expensive trips. It can also mean a picnic in the park, a quiet dinner you make yourself or take them out for, or a few hours spent at a zoo or museum. These gifts are personal and the memory of them will last a lifetime.

6. DIY Something Personal

The days of glitter glue and macaroni noodles might be (mostly) behind us, but a handmade gift still speaks volumes. If it's truly "the thought that counts," giving a personalized item you made yourself says "I know you. I see you. You matter to me." These items come at the cost of your personal time and energy, and someone who cares about you will appreciate the effort you put in. Need some ideas?

When in doubt, just ask. In one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, Prof. Jeffrey Galak sums it up this way:

"In a perfect world, I would be able to look into your brain and find out what you're looking for, what you would hope to receive, and then I execute on that. Of course, we don't live in that world. I can't do that. And so as soon as I realize that that's not possible, the next best thing is just to talk to you and understand what your preferences are, and to avoid some of the mistakes that we make by mismatching between what it is you want and what it is I think you want. If we can do that, it's not quite mind reading, but it's as close I think we can get...And so this really speaks to a recommendation that I always give, which is just ask. If you just talk to another human being and ask them what it is that might make them happy in terms of a gift context, you're just almost always better off."


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