1. They know that luxury is key.
Russell W. Belk, a professor at York University in Toronto and a researcher in consumer behavior, has spent a career identifying what makes a good present. Luxury tops the list. Blenders or new tires are presents that merely address basic needs. As Dr. Belk writes in one of his papers, you might as well give someone 25 pounds of potatoes: “Gifts, unlike many ordinary consumer goods, are not intended to fulfill lower-order needs, but are instead addressed to higher-order needs for love, self-esteem, or self-actualization.” This is not to say that a gift need be expensive—you don’t have to bankrupt yourself on a fancy car—but an item of clothing or a food that’s more luxurious than the recipient would buy himself would fit the bill.
2. They consider the secret dreams of the giftee.
My mother, a terrific gift-giver, intuitively understands the fantasy life of the recipient. One of her great triumphs as a gift-giver was for an eight-year-old family member: She bought a tin treasure chest at Big Lots and stuffed it with costume jewelry from the junk shop. The whole shebang probably cost $10. The little girl was delighted and spent the rest of the day draped in jewels for elaborate sessions of pretend play. Well, adults have fantasy lives too. My mother tries to reflect the aspirations of the receiver—how he or she thinks of himself in an idealized way. She has a knack for knowing that someone privately considers himself a writer or musician or science buff, and selects gifts accordingly. It’s a way of saying, “I also see you as your idealized self”—the great American novelist, the jazz violinist, the astronomer.
3. They sincerely consider the desires of the other person.
“First and foremost, think about the recipient and what they want, instead of what we want them to have. So many times we think we’ve found a great gift, but in reality we’re projecting our own preferences on it. This is especially common among couples who have some similar interests,” said Hieu Nguyen, a professor at California State University Long Beach and an expert in gift-giving, in an email. So if your spouse has been agreeably watching football—to please you—it would be a mistake to wrap up a Tim Tebow jersey and a copy of University of Florida Football Vault: The History of the Florida Gators.
4. They buy experiences instead of material things.
“Research shows that people are happier with experiential gifts, which also make givers and recipients feels closer than material gifts. So, consider buying experiences—in the form of concert tickets, dinner at a great new restaurant, or even just a holiday trip to the movies—for the people on your list,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, in an email.
5. They understand that a chunk of time can more precious than a necklace or a video game.
“For the busy person on your list, buy some free time,” says Dr. Dunn. “For example, treat that busy mother of two on your list to a house cleaning service so she can spend her Saturday relaxing.”
6. They make a sacrifice.
Dr. Belk’s interviews with young people about romantic gift-giving turned up this interesting bit of social science: People value a gift more if they believe that the giver sacrificed something for it. That’s why an expensive gift from a wealthy person is less meaningful than the same expensive gift from a less affluent person. Or why a gift selected by an assistant is less appreciated than one the giver selected herself. The sacrifice can be of money, time or effort—going a little out of your way, or taking the time to select something special, is more meaningful than just clicking on the next thing that pops up on your Amazon page.
7. They use the element of surprise.
This is the whole reason gifts are wrapped! But even beyond that, the sensitive gift-giver knows that the moment of opening a gift should be a moment of unexpected delight. “Despite the perfect gift’s appropriateness to the recipient, it should not be something that is expected,” wrote Dr. Belk. This is a little Mr. Miyagi, I know. A good gift is something exactly right for the person—but it’s not something they’d think of for themselves.
8. They think about the person’s hobbies—but they kick it up a notch.
My friend Andy reports that his son is an excellent gift-giver. “Instead of finding things he likes or wants, he deeply considers the receiver’s needs, interests, hobbies and finds something that might elevate their experience of those interests.”
9. They listen.
My friend Ethan reports, “My in-laws once bought me the ‘Twin Peaks’ box set for Christmas. Six months earlier they had heard me say I wanted it. It was the opposite of their own personal style, but they bought it for me, cold, without overthinking. It blew me away that they listened and made a note of it.”
10. They leverage a wish list.
Ethan also says, “At first I thought a wish list was unromantic. In my family everyone has to bend over backward to prove they gave the most thoughtful gift of all time (as measured by the exuberant whooping/yelling/weeping/silent-struggle-of-verklempt-amazement)….It’s like an Olympic sport. Exhausting. And as a result, no one ever wants to return anything, because they don’t want the giver to feel bad. But really—get the gift from the wish list. Attach a gift receipt. The focus is on the recipient’s happiness, not the giver.”
11. They ask.
Several people—the Ph.D’s and normal folk alike—said that if you’re stumped, ask the recipient’s friends and family. “Talk to the people closest to your romantic partner (best friends, siblings, parents, etc.) because sometimes [if they ask the partner] she or he will just say not to get anything. Or if they insist, they’ll pick something inexpensive and easy to find. But they might have told their best friends what they really want for Christmas or birthday,” said Dr. Nguyen.
12. They understand that sometimes gift-giving is like the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Says my friend Emily, “Sometimes the very best gift is an unspoken agreement on no gifts at all. Gift-giving causes a lot of stress and anxiety, and the relief of knowing that you can let a holiday or a three-day stay go by gift-free can provide much relief, and may even improve your sense of closeness. I.e., you may even look forward to seeing that person more simply because you don’t have to come up with a golf-themed gag gift to bring with you. However, this whole thing is shot to heck if someone either a) breaks form and shows up with a present or b) you find out that they have actually resented you for years for this whole suspect deal.”