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The Art of Giving


Boulder, Colorado

December 21, 2020


From Mark Manson:


1. The secret to happiness is to give it away - It’s that time of year when we awkwardly congregate with our family and give each other gifts and eat ourselves into a minor coma and say things like "Merry Whatever" and "Happy Holiday Things."


Gift-giving practices are ubiquitous in every human culture around the world. In fact, you could probably argue that the whole "holiday" thing is just an elaborate excuse for people to give each other stuff. It makes sense. Gift-giving generates social cohesion, brings people closer together, and makes everyone a little bit happier.


In happiness research, there are many findings that I sometimes think of as, "surprising yet unsurprising." For example, the fact that lottery winners end up no happier after having won the lottery is both surprising and totally unsurprising when you remember how most lottery winners spend the money. The fact that parents of young children are measurably less happy than the average person is both surprising and completely unsurprising when you consider how little sleep they must be getting.


Another of these "surprising yet unsurprising" findings is that spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Again, kind of surprising when you think about how awesome you’d look in that bitchin’ pair of new shoes—but, it’s totally unsurprising when you think of the joy on the face of someone you care about.


But here’s what’s even more surprising: research shows that spending money on others makes you happier, even if that other person is a total stranger.


Yes, indiscriminate altruism is actually good for your mental health and emotional well-being, as well as the health and well-being of others. Gift-giving may be one of those rare social activities with almost no psychological downside (ugly sweaters aside). So the next time you’re wandering through the department store grumbling to yourself, just remember… this is supposed to make you feel better.


2. The subtle art of giving a gift - But as anyone who has received a hideous pair of socks from grandma can tell you, not all gifts are equal—i.e., they don’t all generate the same amount of happiness in the givers and receivers. Let’s talk about how to be a good gift-giver.


There are really only two reasons to give a gift. The first is to make the recipient happy. The second is to generate a greater sense of closeness within the relationship.


For the first category (making them happy) there are two general principles to follow: a) give them what’s useful, and/or b) give them experiences. Stuff is fine if (and only if) it’s something they really want. But if you don’t know what they want, it’s better to give what’s useful (i.e., power tools to fix their busted car door, a gift card to their favorite store, etc.) or give them an experience (a trip to a spa, tickets to a football game, etc.)


But what if you can’t think of an experience or something useful for them. What if they don’t want any material object or thing? Well… here’s where it gets controversial: Give them cash.


I know, I know—cash is so lifeless and dull. But in surveys, people consistently say they would prefer to receive cash than most gifts. In fact, it’s the givers who don’t enjoy giving money. The receivers tend to be thrilled.


This is especially true if you’re trying to give to someone who is struggling financially. If someone is broke, nothing is more helpful than money. Research finds again and again that people in need of money will generally spend it well when they get it (this includes the homeless, by the way).


Take it from someone who spent the first year of his career living on people’s couches: a lifeless check with a couple zeroes on it can bring tears to your eyes.


For the second category (to feel close to someone) research shows that you should give something personally significant. This can be anything from a family heirloom to an object that represents your shared history together to a dumb toy that reminds them of an inside joke the two of you share. Unlike happiness gifts, personal closeness gifts work better as objects because the objects serve as reminders and tokens of the relationship. They give people something tangible to become emotionally attached to.


Paradoxically, personal closeness gifts can actually work better if they are not expensive, as expensive items will sometimes distract from the personal meaning inherent in the object. In fact, it’s almost as though buying a $3 knick-knack shows more affection because it sub-communicates to the person, "I don’t have to spend money to show how much I care about you."



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