My family have never been big gift givers, so it might seem ironic that I’ve discovered two secrets to giving gifts that people will love.
They both come from my research as a consumer psychologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
My first secret: The gifts people love most are rarely the most expensive, but often the most on target for the recipient. They are tangible evidence the gift giver loves the recipient, and that love is grounded in a deep understanding of the recipient.
As I discuss in my book, “The Things We Love: How Our Passions Connect Us and Make Us Who We Are,” we merge a person or thing into our sense of identity when we love them, making them part of who we are. One way this happens is by gaining deep and intimate knowledge about the loved person or thing. So, when others give us a gift that reveals this kind of knowledge, it confirms their love and concern.
Getting people gifts that makes them feel seen often requires you to know them and talk to them at some length. For someone to feel truly seen, you have to truly look.
My friend Steve still cherishes gifts his daughters have given him.
“Jaime bought me a mug covered with Scrabble letters, and Cari bought me a mug that she had customized by printing pictures from a ‘Frog and Toad’ story on its side,” he recalled. “What touched me about both these gifts was that I understood from them that my daughters recognized some essential element of who I am. I felt seen!”
Let’s say you’re buying a gift for an avid home cook. Don’t just ask the cook to name a needed kitchen gadget — delve into what this person loves about cooking, some of their favorite dishes, favorite tools, frustrations in the kitchen and anything else you can think of.
With that kind of deep knowledge, you can figure out the perfect thing. In marketing and design, we use these types of interviews to create the perfect product a consumer will love.
But it works even better in everyday life to find a gift someone will love. And all you need to do is sustain an enthusiastic curiosity about the other person’s life and interests for more than one or two questions.
To paraphrase Dale Carnegie, the secret to closer friendship isn’t being interesting – it’s being interested. Even if you miss the mark a little on a gift, friends will probably love it more because it will remind them of a conversation you had in which you were genuinely interested in them, and how this conversation brought you closer. More often than not, the conversation will be a bigger gift than anything you’ll buy in a store.
This brings us to the second secret about loved gifts: They either remind the recipient of a past connection with you or foster a future connection – or both. My friend Steve loved his coffee mug gifts not only because they made him feel seen, but also because those gifts from his adult daughters referred to some of their favorite shared activities from childhood — playing Scrabble and reading “Frog and Toad” stories together.
In my book, I summarize a long list of studies that all point toward the same conclusion: One of the main reasons people love things is that they connect us to others. This idea shows up often in my research, which I summarized in a 2015 article, “Nothing Matters More to People than People: Brand Meaning and Social Relationships,” published in the Review of Marketing Research.
My friend Ed told me about some loved toys he received as a child. He was about 5 years old when he first saw the Poppin’ Fresh toys his aunt had as part of her collection of Pillsbury memorabilia. “She has since told me that my eyes lit up with excitement when I saw the figurines and that I always asked to play with them when I came over,” Ed emailed me.
“Then one day, she said she had something extra special to give me, and she gave the figurines to me. I loved this gift because it was something precious that she loved and she entrusted me to take care of (I still have them to this day).”
These gifts meant a lot to him because they came from the heart and created a connection between him and his aunt.
Gifting something you used to own is especially powerful. But there’s also a way to make a new gift strengthen a social connection: Use the gift to spend time together. This works especially well with younger children and older relatives.
Here’s how: Give someone a game and find time to play it with them. If the recipients are young, let them teach you how to play. If you give a relative an empty scrapbook, make time to sit with them and fill it up together. It will become loved once the recipient sees it as a bridge that connects the two of you.
Buying gifts can sometimes leave us feeling caught between our hearts and pocketbooks. We may try to comfort ourselves by saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”
But in my research on gifts people love, I’ve never seen much evidence that your good intentions when buying a gift have much impact. It’s more important to see people as they want to be seen, value the relationships you have and use gifts to build deeper connections with them.