How to be a better gift-giver

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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.

That could be welcome news if youre anything like me and about 10 zillion other Americans who are stressed to eyeballs about all those presents you still have to get; the typical consumer plans to buy 15 holiday gifts this year,a Deloitte surveyreports. Boomers will spend an average of $868 and Gen Xers an average of $935, according to a new Lincoln Financial Group survey.

A separate studyfound that eight of 10 shoppers admit that picking the right holiday present for everyone on their list makes them anxious. Which helps explain why 69% ina new SunTrust pollsaid theyd skip exchanging gifts this year if friends and family would agree to it.

Being obligated to give and worrying about how people will react interferes with the happiness we typically feel at the pure act of giving, says Michael Norton, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School and co-author ofHappy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.

Heres how to be happier about your holiday giving:

1. Favor giving experiences over stuff

Sixty percent of the money holiday shoppers shell out for presents this year will go to buy clothing, toys and electronics, Deloitte found. Only 27% plan to buy gifts of an experience, such as concert or show tickets or a restaurant meal.

Yet research shows that recipients are more likely to appreciate experiential gifts than material items, in keeping with a large number of studies indicating that experiences also makeyouhappier than tangible possessions when you spend money on yourself.

In a 2016studypublished in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants were given $15 to buy a friend either an experiential or a material gift and recipients were asked to rate the strength of their relationship with the giver before and after getting the present. Pals who received movie tickets, a pass to a dance class and other experiences felt closer to their friends after getting their gifts than those whod gotten shirts, posters and wine aerators felt to theirs.

Other experiments in this study upheld the experiences-trump-stuff results no matter how much the gift cost; whether the giver and recipient were family, friends or acquaintances or whether the giver and receiver consumed the experience together.

Experiential gifts evoke greater emotion than material ones and its that emotional intensity that makes us feel more connected to the giver, says Cassie Mogilner Holmes, an associate professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and co-author of the study.

Holmes adds: If youve given me the gift of dinner at a restaurant or a museum membership or concert tickets, I associate the emotions I feel when I eat the meal, see the painting or listen to the music with you. Youre in my head, whether youre physically with me or not.

In choosing the best kind of experience to give, its smart to consider the age of your recipient. Holmes and Norton have found that younger people associate happiness with exciting or extraordinary activities, while older people find contentment in calming options and more ordinary pursuits.

So, suggests Holmes, if youll be buying a restaurant gift card as a gift, you might choose a trendy hot spot for a younger recipient but a longtime favorite eatery for the older person on your list.

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.

In one experiment, Holmes and Cindy Chan at the University of Toronto instructed participants to give friends coffee mugs either inscribed with the words My Coffee Mug or My Coffee Time. Those whose cups emphasized theexperienceof drinking java over the object theyd consume it in felt closer to the person who gave it to them.

To heighten appreciation of any tangible present you give, Holmes suggests writing an accompanying note focusing on the experience it will provide. She says, 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 em 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, its best to honor that request.

A Southern Methodist University/University of Texas at Austinstudyfound that friends were happiest when they got gifts they asked for rather than alternatives.

To the giver, going rogue means, I love you, says Norton. To the recipient, its just annoying; it means, he never listens to me.

4. Buy the gift of time

People feel happier when they spend money on timesaving services (like housecleaning or grocery delivery) than on material items such as clothes and wine, according toa 2017 studyby Norton and four other researchers. Yet theyre often reluctant to shell out cash for this purpose, partly because they feel guilty about paying someone to do chores they dislike.

Norton thinks it stands to reason, then, that gifts of timesaving services like a week of takeout meals or babysitting might make nifty holiday presents.

Although he doesnt have direct data yet, a related study looked at spouses or partners who buy time for each other. For women in particular, its a pretty big predictor of relationship satisfaction, Norton says.

Just pick your gift-of-time recipient carefully. Notes Norton: Im not sure whether a co-worker would think a gift of a cleaning service is nice or judgmental, but it certainly seems to work within couples.

5. Make a bigger impact

Making a charitable donation on someones behalf is a thoughtful way to show you care and do good at the same time, right? Actually, not so much.

Givers overestimate how much people appreciate socially responsible gifts, especially for friends theyre not close to, according toa 2015 studyfrom the University of Southern California, Harvard and Duke.

Recipients prefer a gift they can actually use. So get your gym pal or co-worker a gift card to Amazon or some other versatile retailer and donate to a worthy cause inyourname.

Giving to charity makes you happy, studies show, 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 in studies by Norton and others.

Happy holidays, everyone, and may everyone on your list get exactly what they want and be happier for it.

Diane Harris is an award-winning financial journalist and financial wellness advocate. She is the former editor in chief of Money magazine, the first woman to hold the top job, and covered virtually every aspect of personal finance during her 22 years there. She is writing a book on financial wellness and launching a related coaching and consulting business. Follow her on Twitter@dianeharris.

This article is reprinted by permission from, 漏 2017 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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