A guide to joyful gift-giving

While I love gift guides, I rarely find good gifts in them. Instead, here is a list of questions you can ask and principles to follow that will help you give joyful gifts this holiday season.

I have a love-hate relationship with gift guides. I can’t help but eagerly peruse them whenever they come out, ever-hopeful that they’ll hold some inspiration for the people on my list that I’m eager to delight. Yet after flipping through pages of newfangled gadgets and fancy cookware, I rarely end up finding a fit. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever found a great gift on one of these lists.

So this year, I began to contemplate what a joyful gift guide might look like. But rather than create a list of my favorite new products for moms and dads, kids and coworkers, I thought a more helpful approach might be to share a joyful approach to gift-giving, sharing some questions to ask and principles that can help you come up with gifts that will bring joy to everyone on your list.

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect gift.

As joyful as the holidays are, there’s something about the onset of gifting season that stirs up a little bit of dread. I agonize about giving gifts, stressing myself out so much that I often end up putting it off and having to do it all last minute. For recovering perfectionists like me, I think gifting creates a feeling of pressure: you want to give that “wow” gift, the one that’s thoughtful and personal, at a price that feels generous without making the receiver feel guilty or obligated. You may think of previous gifts you’ve given, and how you’ll top them. You may start to get competitive, thinking about the lavish gifts your wealthy sibling always gives. Your ego may even start to get involved, telling you that how your gift is received is a reflection on you and your worth. (Ouch!)

To take the pressure off, let’s come back to an essential question:

Why do we give gifts?

While every now and then you’ll get a gift that the receiver will love and treasure forever, in many cases that bar is simply too high. It’s much less pressure if we recognize that the real reason to give to give a gift is to show we care about someone. A good gift is one that makes the recipient feel cared for, loved, or appreciated.

This reframe is important because while searching for a “perfect gift” feels like a puzzle with only one right answer, there are many different ways to demonstrate you care about a person. It takes the focus off of the cost, prestige, or perceived specialness of the gift and puts it back on what really matters: the receiver.

At the same time, I want to point out that you can’t control how a gift is received. If you’ve ever had someone in your life who has made you feel bad about a gift you’ve given, you may find that gift giving feels like an impossible quest to please. Will it be seen as generous enough? Will they give some backhanded compliment that makes you feel like crap whenever you think of it? Or will they keep their distaste to themselves, quietly thinking less of you? (If these questions sound ridiculous to you, you’ve probably had the good fortune never to be on the other end of such a response, but for those who have, I imagine these might feel quite familiar.)

If you’re facing one of these situations, gift shopping can be paralyzing. It’s important to remember that while the goal is to make the recipient feel cared for, you can’t control how they receive it. All you can do is have thoughtful intentions. It’s helpful to remind yourself as you shop that your goal is not to please this person, but to express the love and care you feel for them. Do this, and you should feel good about your gift, even if the response isn’t enthusiastic.

Questions to help you give joyfully

Most gift guides have sections like “for the cook” or “for the pet lover.” These can be a good start, but I find that truly great gifts tap into more specific things that bring someone joy. As relationship therapist Nedra Tawwab said during our recent conversation, “The best gifts I’ve ever received were not even huge things but it was from people being intentional about things that would spark joy in me.”

When you are able to give something specific, it tells the recipient you’ve been listening. You care about who they are and what brings them to life. In Nedra’s words, “It’s important to know what people need, not what we want them to need.” But where to start? Here are a few questions that might help you get to these specifics. Even if you don’t have answers right now, try listening for them when you talk to your loved ones, or see if you can work these topics into conversation.

What gives them joy?

  • Do they collect anything?
  • What places are special to them? Are there artifacts or reminders from this place you could give them?
  • What are their quirks, passions, or interests?
  • What artists, authors, or musicians do they love?
  • What do they buy — or not buy — for themselves? Noticing what they often covet, but rarely allow themselves to buy, can be a wonderful way to delight someone with a gift.

My husband Albert is the best at this last one. He always notices what I want but refuse to buy myself. For example, a couple of years ago there was a designer handbag I was eyeing. I told him that when I finished my book I’d buy it for myself. But then it seemed too expensive and I kept putting it off. Last year, the handbag was under the tree for me.

What could help them find more joy?

  • What do they want to learn?
  • What are they struggling with? Can you research a novel solution that they might not have thought of?
  • What do they want to make more space for in life?
  • Who are they when they’re their best self? Can you give something that honors or acknowledges this quality? For example, if someone always takes care of everyone else, maybe your gift is a visit from a private chef to take care of them for a night.

One thing that great gifts can do is affirm people’s identities, reminding them of something they do well or aspire to. When I asked the community of joyspotters on Instagram about the best gifts you’ve ever received, one touching response was this one from @medium.lady: “The best gift was a custom made pink tutu that I received as a little girl. I dreamed of being a ballerina and at the time it was my most beautiful possession. I never became a ballerina but I still treasure the way the gift made me feel like all of my dreams and ambitions were possible.”

Ideas for giving joyfully

The questions above are especially helpful for people you know well. But what about giving a gift to a client or professional contact, someone you don’t know as well, and for whom it might feel intrusive to receive something so specific?

In this case, there are few tried and true principles I turn to help choose a gift that feels more joyful than generic. (Note: some of these strategies can be layered to help a gift really pop!)

1. Give something living
Plants reduce stress and add a bit of timeless joy to any space. Giving plants or flowers is a simple way to say, “I care about you and your wellbeing.” I often give plants from the Sill because they arrive beautifully packaged and you can choose from a range of pots that will suit the recipient’s taste.

2. Give something abundant
One thing that can make an ordinary gift feel more impactful is to add an element of abundance. When I was a kid, I loved artichokes (I know, weird), so one year on my birthday my dad had a whole box of them shipped from California. I’d never seen that many all at once, and it made such a big impact that I still remember it as one of my favorite gifts all these years later.

You can also create abundance through color. A box of macarons instantly looks more special when arranged by rainbow color. Or imagine the difference between giving someone a few randomly selected nail polish colors, or giving a selection of rainbow hues. The gift has the same value, but the color gradient makes it feel more intentional and more abundant.

3. Give something that creates time or space.
Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist who studies our relationship to money, notes that one expenditure people are reluctant to make, yet that reliably increases happiness, is buying more free time. And the same relationship holds when spending on a gift. A gift of a visit from a cleaning or babysitting service can give the recipient a free day to devote to a hobby or to rest. A gift of a digitizing service for old photos not only helps preserve memories but liberates the recipient from hours spent scanning and organizing.

Similarly, with clutter out of control in many homes, a gift of a professional organizing service can help someone create more space for what matters. (Just be mindful with this kind of gift that the recipient knows your intent, and doesn’t end up with the impression that you’re critiquing their hygiene or housekeeping.)

You don’t necessarily need to hire someone else to do these things. Taking matters into your own hands can also be joyful. As @mizzbeth61 commented on Instagram, “Some friends had to wait for a flight at my home while I was at work. When I got home my dishes and floors had been done. An early “birthday” present since they would be gone on my actual birthday. Totally unexpected.”

4. Give something that makes a tough time easier.
Winters can be long and dreary, so a holiday gift that aims to ease this is a kindness anyone can appreciate. One thing that I’ve found makes winter much more enjoyable is to look outside and see the birds at my bird feeder. So last year I asked my dad if he and my stepmom might enjoy this too. (Note my rule below about asking before sending large or bulky gifts!) They said yes, and it’s been a joy to trade bird observations throughout the cold months.

Similarly, @geetasadashivan commented, “The best gift I ever received was for my 50th birthday from my daughter. It was a gloomy day in Fall. I came into my dark kitchen from work, set the box from Amazon on the island, and glanced at the label, which said “book light.” I said hmmm, ok, that will come in handy, I like to read in bed . . . and opened the box. There was something that looked like a brown box inside– I assumed it was the packaging to hold the little book light and it’s wire in place. I took it out and opened it– and WHOA!!! It fanned out and the counter lit up! My jaw literally dropped and I was like 😱!!!! It was the most magical and surprising gift ever!” (In case it’s not clear, the gift was a lamp shaped like a book, with pages that illuminate.)

When it’s dark, give light. When it’s cold, give warmth. When the world is full of bad news, give humor. Search for the thing that brings balance into an unbalanced moment, and share that.

5. Give something handmade.
You don’t have to make the whole gift unless you happen to be particularly crafty. But adding a handmade element can make a simple gift feel more personal. This is especially true of experiential gifts. For Albert’s most recent birthday, I wanted to take him out for a fancy omakase sushi meal at a place of his choice. But there wasn’t anything tangible I could give him. So I researched the top three sushi places I thought he would like and made a menu that looked like the printed menu you get at a sushi place. I included reviews of each place, including excerpts from particularly funny Yelp! reviews. This gave him something to “open” and helped to build anticipation for the experience.

This is also a good strategy when giving a gift card. Gift cards can be a great choice because they allow people to get exactly what they want, but they also feel impersonal. Use your packaging to tell the story of your intentions and even a plastic gift card can feel like an expression of love.

6. Give something that offers a moment of surprise or enchantment.
Sometimes a great gift isn’t something durable, but simply offers a truly wonderful moment. On Instagram, @therealmellieg writes: “One of my recent favorite gifts actually comes before Christmas. In early December my MIL always sends me a box of loose evergreens and wintery filler from a farm in Maine. It’s a great gift because you open this fragrant box of greenery and it’s instant possibilities and a pull to create something. I add some to wreaths, make pretty vignettes around the house, etc. I’m even giving them to a couple of people this year that I don’t normally exchange gifts with because I think it’s such a joy to receive.”

You can also do this with food-based gifts. One of my favorite things to give are very highly decorated or beautifully packaged sweets, like these bonbons from Stick With Me Sweets. The round shapes, colorful patterns, and whimsical book packaging pack a lot of aesthetics of joy into one gift, even if it will be gone in a flash! Perishable gifts like this are especially good when you don’t know someone’s particular style, as they make a big impact without lingering to cause clutter down the road.

7. Give something that helps create memories.
If you want to give joyful moments, one way is to focus on what will help someone have more memorable experiences. I was so touched by this gift shared by @murphie1167: “For my 50th b-day, my husband bought a beautiful wool camping blanket and sewed patches that he’d collected of all the places I had visited: before him, while traveling as a family with our two boys, and as a couple. Every time we visit a new place we buy a patch from there and he sews it on. The sewing part is what is truly remarkable as he is definitely NOT a sewer! I love looking at that blanket and hope it collects many many more patches.”

A gift like this is great for someone you know well, but you can apply this principle even to those you don’t know well. Who can resist the charm of a Polaroid-style instant camera, for example? Or a kit that will help them make something of interest to them?

8. Give something you love.
While in general you want to focus on the recipient, I think there are times when it can be joyful to give something you love and want to share with them. Are there books you’ve read recently that you’d love to discuss with this person? Do you have a special recipe you could share? A tool you’ve discovered that makes life so much easier? Do you have special knowledge of new gadgets, wines, etc.? When someone doesn’t know me well, I’ve always been touched when they’ve given me something they love themselves and shared why they’re so excited about it.

Gifting killjoys

Before I wrap up, I wanted to share a very few things that are on my no-go gift guide, because they often sap the joy of a gift. Many of these might be obvious to you, but just in case, I offer them here:

  • Don’t preach. It’s a gift, not an attempt at conversion. Even if you believe that getting your parent / sister / friend to try the keto diet is an expression of your “care” for them, unless the person has specifically asked for this, save it for another time.
  • Don’t give anything large or heavy without checking first. You could end up losing the goodwill of the gift when the recipient has to deal with moving or storing the present.
  • Don’t send perishables during the holiday travel period. Those Harry and David pears that everyone loves? Get them there by December 15th at the latest to be safe. Having come back after the new year to a grouchy doorman, justifiably annoyed by a package of ours that had been rotting in the mailroom since Christmas, I’ve learned this the hard way. Not only was the gift wasted, but everyone was aggravated in the process. If you’re late to the game here, make yours a new year gift instead of a holiday present.
  • Avoid alcohol unless you know the recipient drinks. As recently as a couple of years ago, wine and champagne were go-to presents for me. They’re festive, and easy crowd-pleasers. But since I gave up alcohol for an extended period this past year, I began to question this. While I wouldn’t have been offended if someone sent me an alcoholic present, the default assumption that everyone drinks is at best, presumptuous, and at worst, problematic. What if I had inadvertently sent a bottle of bubbly to someone in recovery? It seemed like bad form to send something that would be useless, and possibly even harmful. And with the rising cultural trend toward people decreasing their alcohol consumption, it seems easier just to avoid it unless you know the recipient well.
  • Don’t put your logo on it. I know a lot of companies like to give holiday gifts or gifts of appreciation that are branded because they believe it will make clients think of them. But seriously, do you want to display a candle / clock / calendar with someone else’s logo on it?When I receive things with logos on them, they nearly always end up in the garbage. Adding your logo to an item makes it an advertisement, not a gift. Logos create visual clutter, and distract from the joy of the object. Focus instead on giving a memorable gift, and I can promise you that no one will forget who gave it to them. (If you must, you can put a sticker or engraving on the bottom or in an inconspicuous place, so that if they do forget, it’s available to jog their memories, but not in their faces.)

I hope this unconventional gift guide offers some helpful inspiration as you’re getting ready for the holidays. Have you ever received a joyful gift? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Happy holidays!

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11 Comments

  1. Thank you! I wasn’t halfway though reading this post and you’d already helped me get unstuck for a couple of people on my list. It’s a very refreshing change from the traditional (and very unhelpful!) gift guides.

  2. Thank you…love your wisdom! Will definitely be using it this year and I’ve already purchased your book, which I love, for my joyful future daughter in law😊

  3. This is a great guide and I shared it on my Facebook page. Thank you.

    Even though I’m a counselor I always wish my legacy was to bring laughter and joy into the lives of my friends and family. One of my favorite gifts to give is the gurgle pot. It’s fun even if you don’t know the story but the story, but the story makes it even better:

    The designer, Matt Ellison, shares his inspiration:
    “Years ago, I attended my brother’s wedding in a small village in Southern France. Since there were no hotels in town, all guests were matched with French hosts. My hosts spoke no English and I spoke no French which made dinner conversation a challenge. Long stretches of awkward silences were compounded by the fact that French dinners can last 3-4 hours. There was, however, one saving grace…a fish shaped water pitcher that “gurgled.” I found myself drinking more water than wine so I could fill the silent room with “gurgling” and unite the table with smiles.”

  4. Melanie Hill Gilbert

    Ingrid, this is SUCH a wonderful post! I’m about embark on holiday shopping next week and am going to keep all of this insight top of mind. I’m flattered you included my Insta response in “#6 Give something that offers a moment of surprise or enchantment.” and I loved reading others’ responses to your post. Lots of inspiration! Happy holidays!

    PS – Birdwatching is the BEST! It, too, brings me joy – in winter and really all year-round!

  5. The link to this was waiting in my inbox this morning, perfect timing as I’m off to the near by town to attempt Christmas shopping today. It usually fills me with dread because I hate the commercialism of it all. I’d already been wanting to do things differently this year and I think you’ve just shown me how. Thank you!

    My favourite gift might have have to be my last birthday, when my Husband woke me up at 3 am and said we were getting the Eurostar for a week in Disneyland Paris. A total, total surprise! I love it there and a week with my hubby was just so special as we work opposite shifts and only see each other at weekends.

    I think the best gifts are the ones that show love, thought and knowledge of the recipient ❤️

    Your book is on my Christmas list this year! X

  6. Thank you so much for this! You’ve given me clarity around my gift giving, and I’m now feeling my excited and calm about my Christmas shopping. :)

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