Of course, you've got a monster to-do list, and it doesn't help that someone's always yelling about the Christmas shopping countdown from your car radio and, frankly, everywhere else. You need to find tasteful gifts for your coworkers (might as well make up for whatever will or did go down at this year's holiday party). Plus, you don't want to forget about all the people who help make your world go 'round—the nurse who finds a way to squeeze you in or the postal worker who routinely offers a kind word. Plus, you're starting to freak out about finding the ultimate gift for your significant other.
But here's the thing. No one wants to feel like an item on your to-do list.
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In fact, it's not the thought that counts, says Sherri Athay, gift consultant and author of Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion. "It's the thinking that counts," she says. "We just don't stop to think for a minute." But do so, and you may be surprised at the simple, special delights you can give someone.
According to Athay, a meaningful gift is a particular one; it comes from carefully considering the recipient's distinctive likes and needs as well as your own special skills while conveying the right message. So, for example, Assay bakes chocolate-chip cookies that her publicist adores. Presto! Perfect publicist gift. Everyone has that signature something they can give, she says. (Perhaps that's why we refer to talents as gifts.) Have an eye for photography? Wrap up an artsy photo for your favorite aesthete. Known for your knack with the elderly? Arrange some time to visit a retirement community. Perhaps you simply spend time with someone you love—instead of a gift card to a restaurant, why not take a friend there for dinner?
The most meaningful gifts, Athay says, are those "that can't come from anybody else, that can't be purchased, and that's why the time spent is so precious." In fact, one of the most valuable gifts she's received from her children was a bundle of loving letters for Mother's Day, though this could work for any occasion, she says. For a gift that wowed a crowd, Athay recalls the story of a woman who read aloud 64 things she loves about her Dad at his 64th birthday dinner. "Those are the kinds of things that cost nothing but our time and a little bit of thought."
And that process also benefits the giver.
"In all these amazing studies we have, when people focus their mind on what they can do to give to another human being, even if it's buying a gift or making a financial contribution to a meaningful charity, when their mind is focused in that way, a part of the brain lights up"—specifically, the reward center, explains Stephen Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. Turning away from your own stresses to think about helping others "shifts the whole emotional dynamic of the brain, and it kicks in these pathways of joy and gratification, which are really good for you, and it shuts down a lot of the bad stuff," he says.
Take the Christmas example of Scrooge, Post says. Once he begins giving, "he's got what I call 'the giver's glow'... he's discovered this incredible joy, and it's liberated him from his old self to a newer self and a better self."
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Apart from the emotional value of exchanging gifts, these rituals have evolutionary underpinnings, says Gad Saad, author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. Gifts have been used for courtship, "kin investments," (people tend to give grander gifts to relatives who are closer or perceived as closer), and to bond with others through a sense of reciprocity, he says. For example, a Bedouin might host a wandering traveler, but would expect said traveler to host him should he find himself in a similar situation, Saad says.
"The beauties but also the pitfalls of the gift-giving ritual is that it is laden with potential land mines," that could explode if we don't negotiate that ritual, says Saad, who is a professor of marketing at Concordia University. Success hinges on the giver's ability to "understand the dynamic and expectations of each of these very different gift-giving situations," he says. And, of course, "pay attention to things he or she is interested in," so that your selection reflects care.
If that's enough to make you wish for the days when you could simply read a child's note to Santa that makes it plain (apart from backwards letters) what he or she wants for Christmas, don't worry.
"Focus your mind, and be empathic, and then go out and give it your best," says Post. And remember, it's the thinking that counts.
Corrected on 12/14/2012: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Sherri Athay and the title of the book The Hidden Gifts of Helping.