Before you go racing out to the mall to pick up a new oversized reindeer sweater for Aunt Sally and a set of drums for your 4-year-old nephew (fun for him, not so much for your brother and his wife), here is a holiday shopping guide based on the science of happiness that might help.
The gift of happiness?
Scientifically, the greatest predictor of happiness is, by far, social support—the breadth, depth and meaning in your relationships. So consider giving gifts that are activities, like a special evening at the local ice rink complete with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Unlike a physical gift, this experience gives you a chance to spend quality time with friends or family and strengthen your bond.
The key is to use these moments to really connect and converse more deeply than you normally do with other people. This reminds our brains of the deep social support that fuels our own happiness as well as theirs.
The difference between momentary pleasure and long-term positive memory is based on the ability to savor, or mentally return to, an event or feeling. A gift that causes a spike in happiness at the moment but that you can’t remember even a week later is analogous to going on a fantastic vacation that you won’t recall.
When shopping this season, think of gifts that will continue to benefit the recipient. For example, for your spouse, you could buy a personalized pillow with important dates in your relationship that will literally help that person savor special moments every time he or she sees it. (We have one of these!)
For a friend, perhaps buy him or her a coffee mug with a picture of something meaningful so the day starts with a positive reminder—the key is to pick a present that will continue to focus the recipient’s attention on positive, happy moments.
Avoid the deficit trap
It’s normal to sometimes wish that we could give a better present than we can afford. Stanford professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D., calls the phenomenon of focusing on what we don’t have “deficit mindset,” and it robs the present (and our presents) of joy.
Instead, we should cultivate a positive mindset by focusing on the facts that we have someone whom we care about so much that we want to give him or her a nice gift and more resources than some people in this world.
Receiving is as important as giving
We’ve all heard that it’s better to give than receive, but the saying misses an important corollary: How you receive matters (a lot) to the giver’s happiness.
If you receive well, your reaction to a gift can actually be a gift in and of itself. The problem is that many of us can’t receive gifts without our brains producing negative thoughts such as, “I’m not worthy of this present” or “Now I feel indebted to her.”
Think about it: We’re happier when others are excited about our gifts and respond with joy and gratitude. So by subtly changing our ego-driven thoughts of guilt to “I am so grateful to her not only for the present, but also the friendship it represents,” we fuel greater levels of happiness for both the giver and ourselves.
That way, when Aunt Barbara surprises you with a matching reindeer sweater, you can be genuinely grateful for her love—and the adorable pictures the two of you can take together to cherish for years to come.
Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and the newly released Before Happiness, is one of the world's leading experts on human potential. Michelle Gielan is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success. She formerly served as the anchor of two national newscasts at CBS News. Together, Shawn and Michelle created GoodThink, a positive psychology consulting firm.