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Is it better to give or to receive? Does an ideal present, perfect for everyone, exist? Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, Ph.D., social psychologist from SWPS University talks about problems, choices and motivations related to gift giving.

Presents No Money Can Buy

Finding an ideal present for everyone on your list seems to be impossible due to the huge range of personal preferences, likes and dislikes, tastes, needs and dreams. The task is even more difficult in societies, where the standard of living is relatively high and most of basic needs are fulfilled. In such situations, Christmas presents no longer supplement home budget or help to acquire new kitchen or household equipment.

At the time when most goods are easily available, the things that are increasingly missing are closeness with other people and attention. Nowadays, the main deficit that people experience is in the area of tangible expressions of positive feelings, such as touch, hugging, and quality time with the loved ones.

Although many people list practical items, such as a new smartphone or a designer bag, on their wish lists, yet during a conversation they often reveal, that what they really really want is a ticket for two to the movies, a vacation with the loved one or a dinner for two. They simply want a gift of time with the people they love. Therefore, it is a good idea to ask children what kind of intangible presents, those that do not come from the store, they would like to receive. You can even make a list of these immaterial gifts and ask your children to put them in order of priority with a justification why some presents are more important than others.

It is Better to Give

Usually, getting a present makes you happy. However, research conducted by Lara Aknin from Simon Fraser University in Canada, clearly indicates that the party who benefits most from gift giving is the giver, not the receiver.

To measure the level of satisfaction of givers and receivers, Lara Arkin analyzed the results of the Gallup Global Poll from the years 2006-2008 that had surveyed 234,917 people from 120 countries. The results of this research indicate that regardless of the geographical region, background and the level of income, the level of satisfaction and happiness was higher in people who gave some money to help others instead of spending it for their own pleasure.

Wrong or Expensive Presents

Although it seems counterintuitive, the joy of getting a present can be easily snuffed out if the gift exceeds the budget of the receiver. One of the reasons for this effect is the reciprocity rule that is deeply rooted in social behaviors. When you receive an expensive gift, you feel discomfort and stress that stems from the cultural norm of reciprocity, which dictates that you should give the giver a present of similar value. Instead of joy, you may experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment, because you cannot afford to give a lavish gift in return.

A wrong gift stirs different emotions. They are mostly related to the visible or masked discontent. Children up to a certain age do not hide their emotions, when gifts do not meet their expectations or if the presents differ from those listed in the letter to Santa. With time, children learn social norms, such as hiding their disappointment or anger. Whether adults reveal their real feelings about unwanted gifts, depends on their relationship with the giver.

People who are in close relationships and who think that they know the preferences and tastes of the other person, for example mothers and daughters, find it hard when the gift does not meet with approval. In such situations, both the giver and the receiver feel disappointed. Therefore, diplomacy is the best way to balance between open criticism of the unwanted present and fake happiness that masks disappointment. It is important to stay true to your own feelings, but at the same time to remain respectful towards the giver and their good intentions. Thanking someone for the present is always a good idea. You might also mention that next time you would be happy to provide some suggestions for the gift.

Gifts from the Heart

If you find it difficult to decide what to put under the tree for the people on your list, choose something that expresses your love for them. Give them the gift of understanding, closeness and acceptance. These types of gifts never go out of style and they suit everyone. All we need is love. Every day, not only on Christmas Day.


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About the author

Assistant Professor Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc – is a psychologist interested in the psychology of motivation, effectiveness, perseverance and in mental simulations. At SWPS University, she teaches psychology of emotions, psychology of motivation, psychology of individual differences, behavioral health, as well as the development of personal and social competencies. She is also a master’s thesis advisor. In her work she combines theoretical knowledge with practical experience that she has gained while working in a business environment.