5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Make Your Gifts Meaningful

A person holds a holiday gift
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Holiday gift buying can feel a little empty, when all of those endless lists, long lines at the mall and dollars spent lead to a 5-minute frenzy of flying wrapping paper and ribbon.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Years of scientific research on gift giving have turned up a few ways to make the whole process a little more fulfilling. The following tips can help make gift giving more meaningful for both the giver and the recipient.

1. Know the person

"The most important thing in the exchanging of gifts is it shows that you really know the person well, and you really care about them," said Ryan Howell, a psychologist at San Francisco State University and co-founder of beyondthepurchase.org.

That generally means tailoring the gift to the recipient. For example, Howell told Live Science, research finds that people who want to buy meaningful gifts don't buy the same gift for two of their friends — even if those friends don't know each other, would never compare the gifts and would both enjoy the same item.

It's also important to consider practicality. A 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that gift givers focus too much on the desirability of potential gifts and not enough on how the recipient might use those gifts. In one study, gift-giving participants tended to choose gifts that were desirable but impractical (e.g., a gift certificate for an expensive but faraway restaurant) rather than those that were more practical but less desirable (e.g., a gift certificate for a closer but cheaper restaurant). But the participants who were receiving the gifts actually preferred the more practical option.

In other words, gift givers shouldn't choose presents based on what they would like to give but rather on what the recipient would really want to receive. [Avoiding Identity Theft: 10 Tips for Online Holiday Shoppers]

Gift giving "is an expression of truly seeing the other person and knowing what they want," said Allison Pugh, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies consumption.

2. Donate in their name

Giving gifts to friends or to charity is linked to happiness. Research suggests that happier people give more to charity, and that giving more makes people happier, creating a positive feedback loop, according to a 2009 paper from Harvard Business School. 

Moreover, charity-related happiness is highest when people give in a way that fosters social connection. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Happiness and Development found that people felt happier after giving in a personalized manner, via a friend or relative, than after giving an anonymous donation. So, try giving to the less fortunate in someone's name this holiday season — it might give you both a holiday glow.

3. Give handmade goods or hand-me-downs

New and store-bought is not always best. A study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Marketing found that people prefer buying homemade items for loved ones and were even willing to pay as much as 17 percent more for homemade things versus mass-produced items. The findings suggest that people feel that homemade items show more love, and love is what they want to express to the gift recipient.

Family heirlooms may be another good gift option. A 2009 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when families hand down even a very depersonalized asset — money — through the generations, the symbolic value of the cash is greater than the numerical value alone.

4. Don't go overboard with anti-consumerism

On the other hand, don't panic if your kid's Christmas list looks like the entire index of the Toys R Us catalog. A little bit of commercialism can help kids make connections with their peers.

"Children's stuff has a really intense social component, and by that, I mean it's almost a language that they speak with each other," said Pugh, who has studied how kids navigate consumerism.

Having some of the same "stuff" that others have helps kids find common ground with their peers, Pugh has found, and that should be comforting to parents who don't want to quash their children's hopes on Christmas Day. That's not to say that materialism is to be encouraged, Pugh said, but rather that material possessions do have enriching aspects.

The good news, Pugh added, is that kids are adaptable — kids who don't have the hottest toys or games often learn about them in other ways, so they can engage in these conversations anyway. [Gift Ideas for Kids: Best Educational Toys and Games of 2015]

5. Give experiences, not objects

If there's a golden rule of gifts, though, it's this: Give experiences rather than items. People who receive experiential gifts, such as concert tickets or a zoo membership, feel more connected to the gift giver than people who received material items, according to researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The giver and the recipient don't have to share the experiential gifts in order to get this connectivity boon.

However, a recent paper by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Seoul National University found that people fail to realize that experiential gifts are a better choice than something tied with a bow. Part of the problem, the researchers found, is that people hesitate to give experiential gifts to people they aren't very close to.

Getting people an experiential gift is actually a safe bet, Howell said. People who expect a material gift who get an experiential one instead report being satisfied anyway, his research has found. In contrast, those who expect an experiential gift but get an item instead are very disappointed.

Experiential gifts are particularly meaningful for kids, Pugh said. Doing something with a child builds memories that last longer than mere stuff.

"If gifts are about expressing and forging love, one of the best ways to do that is with your own time," Pugh said. "That will always be a really powerful gift."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.