In this post: A summary of the research on what makes a good gift, plus the four things everyone can’t get enough of that will satisfy those criteria.
The Four Insatiable Needs
There are four things that everyone in the world can’t get enough of.
Even you mom, minimalists, and multimillionaires who “Already have everything I need.”
So if you touch on one of them—or more!—with your gift, it’s guaranteed to be well-received.
1. A good gift fulfills the recipient’s desires.
“A good gift,” says behavioral economist Dan Ariely, “is something that someone really wants, but feels guilty buying it for themselves.”
Or, if that someone is thoughtful, it may be something they held off on buying for themselves because they know people like you are desperate for gift ideas for them.
So the most thoughtful gift you can give that’s guaranteed to meet their desires?
Give them what they want.
Giving someone what they asked for is “boring,” but all the studies on gift-giving find it’s the most surefire way to make them happy and strengthen your relationship.
And if you’re wary of using this unoriginal approach, consider this:
For many of us, our favorite gifts of all time were things like bicycles, Barbies, or B.B. guns that we begged and pleaded Santa/our parents for. And our parents didn’t go, “Little Chrissy wants a bike? Well, I’m going to be extra thoughtful and surprise him with something else I know he’ll love: a science set!” No, they gave us what I wanted and made us jump up and down with glee.
But what if…
- You’re buying a gift for an adult who doesn’t know what they want?
- For some reason, you can’t or don’t want to ask them what they want?
- They give you the dreaded “I already have everything I need,” but you know they will resent you if you don’t get them something?
Well, you can try hitting one of the next three insatiable needs. Or maybe you can try getting to their desires with different questions than “Waddya want?”
- If you were placed on Santa’s lap and not allowed off until you gave him a genuine gift request, what would you say?
- Have you done anything recently that you really enjoyed?
- What goals, projects, plans do you have for the year ahead?
- What’s been annoying you recently, or are you not looking forward to?
That last question brings us to the second insatiable need.
2. A good gift addresses the recipient’s problems.
People are hard to please, so rather than struggle to give them the gift of joy, take away an annoyance—or a struggle, or a negative feeling.
To stimulate your problem solving, here are some quick examples of common complaints and ideas for addressing them:
- Too many responsibilities: Give them a gift certificate for babysitting or pet sitting.
- Everyday annoyances: Pay for a handyman to go over and patch up squeaky doors, clogged sinks, and scratched walls they never get around to dealing with.
- Devices in disrepair: Get some geek to clean up their computer, fix their cracked screen, replace their phone’s old battery, or buy them a high-speed charger.
- Unrewarding chores: Hire them a cleaner or home laundry service, or give them some home-delivered, healthy meals.
- Feeling wasteful: Get them beeswax wraps to use instead of saran wrap, Stasher bags instead of Ziplocs, or Silpat baking mats instead of parchment paper.
- Not enough time: Buy them a handful of Uber rides over to your place so they can catch up on emails on the way and not waste time looking for parking.
- Loneliness: Organize a get-together, or hire a dating coach (more on this to come).
If you choose to be a problem-fixer, consider these two watch-outs:
- Don’t fix problems you think they need solving but they don’t want you to solve, or aren’t aware they have.
Don’t buy deodorant for a friend with B.O. Don’t hire a fat loss coach for your wife who’s put on a few unless she asked. And don’t hire me a hairstylist or fashion consultant.
- Don’t give them more problems.
If you gift a cooking class, a handyman, or a trip, don’t burden them with having to schedule it. Put in the extra effort to arrange a date that’s likely to work for your recipient. They can always change it if they need to.
That way, instead of making them worry about when they’re going to use your generous gift, they plan around it and have something to look forward to. And this increases the perceived value of your gift.
Similarly, don’t give your recipient a gift card to some store or restaurant they never pass by. It will most likely float around in their wallet as a nagging reminder that, “Oh right. I gotta use this thing sometime.”
3. A good gift makes the recipient more effective.
In her book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, Heidi Grant shares a thought-provoking idea:
“More than pleasure, or pain avoidance, people seek to be effective.“
So, for coming up with a good gift for someone, ask yourself this:
How can I make them more effective at the things they do?
Find and hire an expert.
For example, for Christmas a couple of years ago, Kim booked us classes with a masseuse to teach us how to give each other better massages. And for Kim’s birthday, I booked her a session with a calisthenics expert to improve her technique and give her new workout ideas.
Hiring an expert’s a triply terrific gift because:
- It’s something to look forward to.
- It can often be made a social occasion.
- It’s a gift that keeps on giving by making that person more effective.
What if hiring an expert’s too expensive?
Consider asking them their favorite things that make them more effective at what they do, and buy one of those.
What if you can’t find an expert?
Maybe you can think of something that will enable your giftee to do regular things in life more effectively—something like the world’s best nail clippers or an awesome pen. Kim swears by the ones from Muji.
And, for bonus brownie points, personalize that item.
This last suggestion ties to the fourth insatiable need.
4. A good gift creates meaning.
When it comes to giving a meaningful gift, the key word is this:
Studies find that people value a useful item—nail clippers, merino socks, whatever—more if they receive it as a gift than if they buy it for themselves.
Because the novelty of any item wears off, but sentimentality doesn’t.
That’s why personalizing whatever you give someone makes for such a good gift.
For example, Kim loves the ring her sister gave her for her thirtieth birthday. It was made by a Vancouver jeweler, features her birthstone, and has her initials and birth date engraved on the inside.
Another way to give a sentimental is to capture a moment.
For example, for my mom’s sixtieth birthday, we made a rap video to memorialize the family getaway in Thailand we went on to celebrate.
Or you can attach a story to whatever item you gift:
- Wrap it in some crazy way.
- Write a nice letter that explains why you chose it for them.
- Or buy a variety of some consumable—olive oil, ice cream, beer, or whatever—and organize a blind taste test. That way, they get to enjoy high-quality products they may feel guilty for purchasing normally, they have an excuse to be social, and they may learn something. And, from then on, whenever they buy or try the olive oil, ice cream, beer, or whatever they taste-tested, it’ll have a story behind it—and more meaning.
Final Surefire Tip
I’m confident this tip will work because you spent precious minutes of your life finding this post and making it all the way through my rambling about the four insatiable needs:
That proves you care about making your recipient happy and strengthening your relationship.
What a thoughtful person you are!
But thoughtfulness won’t necessarily help you achieve gift-giving greatness. To paraphrase behavioral scientist Nick Epley, gift givers value the thought put into a gift. But gift receivers don’t see the thought; they just see the gift.
So here’s what you need to do:
Tell them about all the thought you put into your gift!
Tell your lucky gift recipient you went so far as to read some bozo bloggers’ tips in hopes of making them happy and showing how much you value your relationship. That way, even if the gift you pick misses the mark, they will feel special.
And who knows?
Maybe, if your giftee’s as thoughtful as you, they’ll be encouraged to put some extra thought into the next gift they give you, which will make you happy and bring you two even closer together.
Unwrap more gift-giving insights.
- Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving. This 2016 paper by Carnegie Mellon’s Jeff Galak et al. gives the best overview I found on the psychological mistakes most of us make when giving gifts, and a framework for overcoming them.
- How to Give and Receive the Perfect Gift. Happiness Lab host Laurie Santos hosts a trio of gift eggheads, Nick Epley, Liz Dunn, and Jamil Zaki, to gather their practical insights in a lighthearted conversation.
- Giftology: The Art and Science of Using Gifts to Cut Through the Noise. This book by professional gift-giver John Ruhlin makes a persuasive argument that giving gifts is an overlooked strategy for getting ahead in life and business. And he provides practical tips on how to apply it.
- How to Pick Gifts Even Better Than Santa. An unqualified blogger takes a stab at suggesting eight timeless tips, and dozens more ideas, for how to choose the right gift.
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