My family has never been a big gift giver, so it may seem ironic that I’ve discovered two secrets to giving gifts 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 the most are rarely the most expensive, but often the most targeted to the recipient. They are tangible proof that the giver loves the recipient, and that love is based on a deep understanding of the recipient.
As I say 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, becoming part of who we are. This happens in particular by acquiring a deep and intimate knowledge of the person or thing loved. So when others give us a gift that reveals this kind of knowledge, it confirms their love and care.
Giving people gifts that make them feel seen often requires you to know them and talk to them at length. For someone to really feel seen, you have to really look.
My friend Steve always cherishes the gifts his daughters gave him.
“Jaime bought me a mug covered in Scrabble letters, and Cari bought me a mug that she had personalized by printing pictures of a ‘Frog and Toad’ story on the side,” he recalled. “What touched me in these two gifts is that I understood from them that my daughters recognized an essential part of who I am. I felt seen!
Let’s say you’re buying a gift for an avid cook. Don’t just ask the cook to name a necessary kitchen gadget – explore what that person loves about cooking, some of their favorite dishes, their favorite tools, their frustrations in the kitchen, and anything else you can think of.
With that kind of in-depth knowledge, you can find the perfect thing. In marketing and design, we use these types of interviews to create the perfect product that a consumer will love.
But it works even better in everyday life to find a gift someone will love. And all you have to do is maintain an enthusiastic curiosity about the other person’s life and interests for more than a question or two.
To paraphrase Dale Carnegie, the secret to a closer friendship isn’t to be interesting – it’s to be interested. Even if you miss the mark of a gift a bit, your friends will probably like it more because it will remind them of a conversation you had that really interested you, and how that conversation brought you closer. More often than not, the conversation will be a bigger gift than anything you buy in a store.
This brings us to the second secret of loved gifts: they either remind the recipient of a past connection with you, or they 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 these gifts from his adult daughters referenced some of their favorite activities shared since childhood – playing Scrabble and read “Frog and Toad” stories together.
In my book, I summarize a long list of studies that all point to the same conclusion: one of the main reasons people like things is that they connect us to others. This idea comes 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 Review of Marketing Research.
My friend Ed told me about some beloved toys he received as a child. He was around 5 years old when he first saw the Poppin’ Fresh toys his aunt had in her Pillsbury memorabilia collection. “She has since told me that my eyes light up with excitement when I see the figurines and that I always ask to play with them when I come,” she emailed me.
“Then one day she said she had something special to give me, and she gave me the figurines. I loved that gift because it was something precious that she loved and loved. she gave me custody (I still have them to this day).
These gifts meant a lot to him as they came from the heart and created a bond between him and his aunt.
Giving something you owned is particularly powerful. But there’s also a way to make a new gift strengthen a social bond: use the gift to spend time together. It works especially well with young children and older parents.
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 an empty album to a loved one, take the time to sit down with them and fill it in together. It will become loved once the recipient sees it as a bridge that connects the two of you.
Buying gifts can sometimes make us feel like we’re caught between our hearts and our wallets. We can 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 of an impact. It’s more important to see people as they want to be seen, to value the relationships you have, and to use gifts to build deeper connections with them.