How much does it cost to be happy?


At least that’s how much it cost me last year.
Whitman Sampler

If I spent that much on myself I’m not sure I could even pretend that I had bought satisfaction, but because of the way I spent it I created some real joy for myself that has brought a warm glow that I’ve enjoyed for a year since then.

As you might expect, the magic was in spending the money to give a gift.

Random Act of Gift-ness

I had been reading some of the research about the happiness effects of giving and one of the findings reminded me of different findings I’ve read about random acts of kindess. Consistently it seems that happy people give gifts and giving gifts makes people happy.  It’s a great feedback cycle to be in but how do you start?  If you are not already dizzy with joy and dancing with bunny rabbits in a Disney movie what do you do about this knowledge.

Well the research on random acts of kindness suggests the easy answer – pick someone more or less at random and try to make them happy.

So I bought a small box of chocolates at the corner pharmacy and went looking for a victim.

Size Doesn’t Matter – Happiness is Cheap

The first person that occured to me since the pharmacy is near my bus stop was the bus driver on the route I commute on.  I rode my commute as normal and then at my station I stopped by the driver’s seat.

“Can you accept gifts?”
“I know that usually the only feedback that you get from riders is complaints from us when you are running late so I wanted to say thank you for  geting us where we want to go and putting up with us day after day”

As I gave him the chocolate he had a funny look on his face.  I don’t think he cared about the chocolate at all.  Honestly if I were him I’m not sure I would trust it even if it was in a cellophaned package.

But he liked being appreciated.  He liked a thank you for a job that comes with lots of abuse.

I, as I walked away, was also delighted.  I felt like I had made the world a slightly better place by taking the time to appreciate someone else.  If I had just said thank you it would be nice, but the driver thought that I had taken time out of my schedule to think about how to say thank you.

It didn’t happen to be true that time, but I had made him feel apreciated and I was happy for that.

Random is Better
Random acts of kindness
I think this story illustrates one of the most important things that I’ve learned studying gift giving behavior and that is how important expectations are to the dance of gift giving and how the most sucessful gifts manage those expectations.

If you think that gifts have to be expensive to have an impact it’s because of the marketing messages saying that you should buy your wife diamonds for your anniversary or buy your kids a car.  Those are just commercials though, they don’t have anything to do with human connection.

Exactly because the driver had no expectation of appreciation the gift had impact.  Showing appreciation, even though the gift was tiny, made us both happy.  The first article I linked to about how giving makes you feel good confirms the point: the size of a gift has little to do with how happy it makes the giver or the recipient. The act of giving itself has most of the effect.

Since then I’ve done a few more random acts of kindness.  Never enough, not really, but every one stands out in my memory as something I’ve been proud to do.  Something that made happy in the moment and in remembering it later.

It’s a great ride, and it turns out that admission comes cheap.  Give it a try.


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Treading Carefully on Gifts

Yesterday I talked about the idea of Love Languages but didn’t get into the issue on everyone’s mind.

How can you make your partner happier and feel more loved by giving gifts, without going bankrupt or getting in trouble for trying to ‘buy’ your partner’s affection.  These two downsides are linked and depend on knowing exactly what you are saying when you give a gift to your beloved.

Thinking about Gifts

The critical thing to know is that the price tag on your gift is almost irrelevant!  You might think that people whose primary love language is receiving gifts want to be impressed by the size or importance of gifts but the reality is both more humble and more difficult.

In the book Gary gives examples of gifts like a leaf or a rock; gifts with a price tag of exactly zero dollars.  In the stories he tells, though, they are valuable to their receiver because they showed consideration and thoughtfulness.

It’s the consideration where you can either save money while making your partner happy or conversely waste a lot of effort.

For example my wife doesn’t like traditional jewelry. I could spend thousands of dollars on a necklace or earrings for her and probably only end up making her mad.  The price tag would work against me because a gift like that would show a lack of consideration of her feelings and preferences.

We Must Go Deeper, Much Deeper

Instead of just being a way of conspicuously burning money for someone else a gift of love needs to be communication itself.  Let’s try another example.

When you tell someone ‘I love you’ it doesn’t have much power after the first time.  It’s too easy and too general.  Telling your wife that you love how graceful she is or how she handled a tense situation at work will communicate more love because it is specific to her and to your relationship.

Giving a gift is an ‘I love you’ just like the more specific declaration of love.  A bottle of wine doesn’t usually communicate love but a bottle of wine that you enjoyed on a picnic together on your honeymoon certainly does.  Candy on your anniversary says you are lazy, the specific cake that you had at your wedding reception says you care.

Buying Your Way Out of Trouble

I think this is why buying gifts when a couple is having a fight is so hard.  The communication part of a gift isn’t seperate from the conflict.  It can’t be because it is just another word in the conversation that the two of you are already having.

In situations like that you have to tread carefully and think about how your gift will be interpreted now instead of what you think it might mean generally.  A gift that would be well received on his birthday might not mean anything the day after a spat.

Enough about conflict though.  Let’s try next time to talk about unique ways of finding gifts and remembering to give them.

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How to Turn a Dull Gesture Into a Happy Spouse

Gift giving is more fundamental to relationships than dating.

It’s more universal than dinner and a movie, more specific to how a couple relates than dancing and older than the language I’m writing in now.

So why do we do it so badly?

Finding gifts for a significant other is one of the most common questions that leads people to this blog.  What can I get for my boyfriend, what will impress my girlfriend, what can I get my wife for our thirtieth anniversary that I haven’t got before?  On all ends of the relationship spectrum people are looking for better gifts.

And usually that is what I write about (For example I have a series of training emails about how you can give more effective gifts without spending a penny more), but I think we should also back up and talk about the role of giving gifts in a relationship.  All the things that I started this article with are true, but it’s also super easy to go wrong with gift giving and not come out of it with anything other than a higher Visa bill

Speak my language

For looking deeper into gift giving in relationships I am going to borrow the language from Gary Chapman’s books on love languages. Chapman is a marriage counselor and author whose big idea is that different people express and receive love differently.  You might feel loved when you are told that you are loved but your boyfriend might try to express his feelings by suggesting that you go on a drive together.  You can learn more about the love languages at his main website and I suggest you do, it’s an idea that seems obvious after you read about it.  A sure sign of quality.

More About Gift Receiving

Here, though, I only want to talk about one of the forms of love language – gift receiving.  Everyone feels loved when they receive a gift to a certain extent so don’t worry if you think that your spouse is a different type, but how do you know if their primary form of love is gift receiving?

Chapman suggests that one of the surest signs of how someone feels about gifts is to look at how they’ve reacted to past gifts.  Do they attach a great deal of importance to gifts you’ve given them in the past? Do they keep cards?  Do they show a great deal of appreciation for small gifts of flowers or time?  Again there is more in the book?

And If They Aren’t Gift Receivers?

Everyone actually speaks all the languages according to Chapman, it’s more a matter of relativity.  I am a cuddle man, for instance (physical touch) but I also enjoy receiving a kind word (words of affirmation) or a thoughtful gift.  Everything I am going to write in the next article applies to your partner, but you may need to put forth more effort on this front if gifts are their primary form of affection.

Gifts of Love

This article has been an overview of the idea of Love Languages and specifically Gift Receiving that I will refer back to.  Next time I am going to get more directly to the question of how you show love using gifts… and without going broke.

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Receive more gifts with this trick

Let’s get loot.

Usually I write about how to select better gifts for people.  How to present a gift so that it makes your giftee squeal with delight.  Sometimes how to save money on buying gifts.

But hey, I like getting gifts too.

It just so happens that I was reading a paper about how giving people gifts makes you happy when it occurred to me that you could interpret the results in a different way.

The short version of what they are talking about is that happy people give more gifts and giving gifts (donating to charity, in this case, but other psychologists that gift giving and giving to charity tend to work the same way for this kind of research) makes people happy as well.  It looks like a chicken-and-egg problem where you can’t tell which one comes first but the authors do a decent job of showing that it is a feedback loop.  Wherever you are in life you are more likely to give gifts if you are happy and you will be happier for giving gifts.

But what if we turn this around a bit?  We know that if we give someone a gift they will feel like they owe us a return gift, which can feel a little burdensome.  But what if you could magically do something that would make them want to, be delighted to pick you our something in return.

It turns out that giving a gift does that in itself.  It’s true that it may create a small feeling of obligation, but it can also help make the recipient happier and that makes them want to give gifts.

Give the First Gift

Generally this makes me think that I should just establish more gift-giving relationships in my life, but taking the first step is always awkward.  According to this study, though you should begin things by giving a gift of your own early.  This will work best with Christmas since that is the most popular two-way gift exchange but if you want to send your friends a token gift for your birthday that works too.  You don’t need an occasion though, and gift giving is actually more effective at bring relationships closer together if it doesn’t have one.

Why is this? Well there is also a fair amount of research that I’ve written about elsewhere that will surprise absolutely no one that shows that receiving gifts makes people happy as well.

Don’t Get Caught, Get Thanked

In the paper they tested this by asking people to remember happy memories, which also suggests that you might do that with your own gift as well. Not that you should just ask your friend to think happy thoughts so they buy you a bigger box of chocolate (thought that thought amuses me), but give a gift that itself brings up happy memories.  Pick a gift that relates to a memory that you both share or give an experience and make some new ones.

I was on the receiving end of this last Christmas when a friend surprised me with a gift of a set of mugs. It was not an elaborate gift, but she had chosen them because she had been paying attention once when she was over at our house and my wife mentioned that I had broken a few.  They were nice mugs, but more than that they showed that she cared and was paying attention.  We, of course, wound up picking a gift out for her family that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

I feel more positive about her and I like the mugs more than I would have if I had just bought them myself.   Now I need to go out and do the same.

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Want the Secret for How to Pick Gifts for Men and Women Who Have Everything?

Bill Gates at CES

What do you get the ,an who has everything?

They’ve got that. They’ve got that. They’ve got that.

What could they possibly need?

For me it’s my parents, my grandparents and my boss.  I want to buy them presents for Christmas or their birthdays, but I have a hard time finding something that they could possibly want.

After all, they make more money than me and aren’t shy about buying things.

That’s why I was very interested to read a paper recently that gave me a very solid starting point for buying gifts for people who already have it all.

I’ll Give You 4-1 Odds

The psychologists in the paper look at what purchases or gifts made people happy.  They were interested mostly in finding out if people enjoyed having experiences or things more and, mostly by accident, they shed some light on the old ‘what do you get the person who has everything’ question.

It turns out that, while most people are made happier by experiences than things, this is much more true of the people making the most money in the survey.  For people making $150,000 a year or more   80% said that experiences made them happier than things.

This is not mom trying to not make you feel bad by saying that she just wants you to shovel the driveway, this is people saying how they felt about purchases that they had made for themselves as well.

That’s 4-1 odds that you shouldn’t be shopping at the mall, you should be making a card.

Why Give Experiences?

This is a bit of a theme at DuckDuckGift.  It turns out that experience gifts literally make people happy after the fact, whereas gifts usually don’t.

Also gifts of experiences aren’t compared as much to other gifts the person receives – which might be all the more important if you are buying gifts for a boss or a wealthy client who might also be receiving other big-ticket presents.

The effect of experiences compared to physical gifts is so great that even just writing a card that goes with the gift and emphasizes the experience of having the gift makes the recipient like it more.

In the same paper that I was talking about above they found that a majority of people, 60%, preferred experiences to physical gifts – that’s worth knowing too, but the odds are most in your favor, 80%, when you are facing the toughest gift giving challenges which is even better.

But What Experiences Can I Give Them?

One of the best things about giving an experience gift is that you don’t have to worry about them already having it.

If you know that your recipient gets a massage every now and then you can give them another and make it memorable with a nice card or by going with them (if that is appropriate).

I’ve had people complain that they dont’ know how to come up with experiences to give someone, but I suspect that it’s just because people are not in the habit of giving experience gifts.  Anything you could give as a physical gift can also be given as an experience.

Instead of a golf polo give a certificate for a golf swing analysis.  Instead of a book give tickets to see one of their favorite authors give a talk.  Instead of a new top give her a spa day.

I don’t know your recipient and you do so I will stop there, but hopefully this has gotten you thinking.  Click any of the links up above to get more great ideas for giving experience gifts.

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What’s a Worse Gift Than Fruitcake?

Hot dog sweater(Thanks to Bob for catching a math error in an earlier version of this post.)

Hi everyone,

This is a quick follow-up to my post about most returned gifts.

It occured to me after writing that article that you can combine the numbers from a few different papers to figure out exactly how often clothes are returned.

If 10% of gifts are returned and 25% of gifts are clothes and 85% of gifts that get returned are clothes then… drumrolllllll

34% of clothes given as gifts are returned.  By the same math only two percent of non-clothes gifts get returned. That means that pretty much only with clothes are giving your recipient an errand (keep the receipt, go return it, shop for something she really does want) instead of a gift.

That’s bad gift giving.


Unless your recipient specifically asks for something and tells you her size.

Otherwise the odds just aren’t in your favor.

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Why Is Everyone (Else) So Shallow About Gifts?

shallow mom15% of the money spent on gifts are wasted.

27% of gift cards sit unused.

40% of clothes given as gifts are returned.

Obviously there is a problem here, gift givers and gift receivers aren’t coming together on what, exactly, makes a great present.

So if you give a gift to your mom are you picking a bad gift or is it her problem?

The answer is obvious. Your mom is shallow.

Gifts Are Not Food, They Are Diamonds

The fact that you got a gift is not enough.

We want gifts to function like we are giving food to a hungry person – more is more.  They should be happy that they got something from you.  The real picture is more complex.

In an interesting paper that I just read out of the University of Chicago participants in a research study were given different amounts of milk and asked how happy they were with it.  I would think that how happy they were would just depend on how much they received, just like we expect how happy our recipients are with our gifts just depends on how much we spend on them.


In the trial people’s happiness depended more on how much other people got in the test than on how much they received.  They compared their cups to the cups received by other participants and the comparison was more important than what was in their own cup.

When you are giving a gift to someone they can’t help but do the same.  If you give them a gift it will be compared to other gifts that they receive at the same time, or to gifts that others are receiving (say, at Christmas where multiple people are opening presents).

It’s not your mom’s fault that she is shallow, we are all just wired that way.

What Can I Do About It?

In the past I’ve reccomended giving experience gifts to avoid some of the comparison problems but this experiment shows that experience gifts still have some comparison problems.  The cups of milk were not given just to have they were given to drink.

Instead the solution suggested in this paper is to try to not be compared.

Instead of giving gifts at the same time as everyone else (at a big birthday party or Christmas gathering) can you send the gift either ahead of time or later?

For my son we have taken to only letting him open one present per day on his birthday and Christmas.  He is blatant about comparing his gifts since he is three and hasn’t learned to disguise his true feelings yet.

When he opened a train and socks on Christmas day last year he literally threw the socks over his shoulder and went back to playing with the train. Kind of embarassing.

When he opened just pajamas a few days later, though, he was excited and wanted to wear them immediately. Roughly the same gift, but very different responses because of the comparison effect.

You want to be the pajamas instead of the socks.

These days it’s easy to avoid the comparison effect. Buy your gifts on Amazon and have them shipped to your recipient’s house.  They will be opened when they are received instead of at a large gathering and are much more likely to be appreciated as the thoughtful gifts that I am sure they are.

Even if it’s your mother.

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How to Spend Less On Gifts Without Pissing Off Your Family

spending-less-giftsChristmas has just come and gone, are you happy with how much you spent?

Do you have plans to spend more/less next year?

Do you wish you could get through Christmas without taking out a second mortgage on your house?

It’s the post-holday hangover; looking at your bank statements and trying to figure out if it was really all worthwhile.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that spending lots of money on Christmas presents makes people less happy at Christmas rather than more happy, so why spend the cash?

It’s a hard move to make.  One of my cousins this year tried to move to a secret santa system from buying presents for everyone in the family and literally drove one of her sisters to tears.

She’s not alone, either.  The same paper I linked to above found that, while spending lots of money made people less happy at Christmas.  So did actively trying to spend less.

It’s quite a catch, catch-22.

The Problem With Spending Less: Tradition

One of the problems that I suspect that people run in to is that change is hard during the holidays. Maintaining traditions and doing things as a family is one of the activities that predicts a happy Christmas, so breaking from a tradition that brings everyone together is difficult.

I think that rather than buying fewer presents you might try buying smaller presents for everyone.  If you know the ‘no medium presents‘ rule you might already know that spending $10 less might have less than $10 effect on how your present is received anyway.  Try it.

The Problem with Spending Less: Expectations

The other big problem that I’m sure occurs to you too is expectations in the minds of your gift recipient.

If your brother and you have a history of big gifts how do you throttle back to a $20 Christmas?

Fortunately this is an easier problem to deal with than it seems like.

It turns out that the problem of comparing gifts – both to other gifts received by the person and to the imaginary gift that they thought you were getting – can be helped by getting an experience gift.

Experience gifts tend to stand on their own instead of being compared to other gifts.  So if you are worried about your sister, say, comparing her gift to what you exchanged last year or what she might get from mom give her the gift of a trip together to the amazing coffee place that you don’t usually get to or to go paint a small piece of pottery together.

As a gift it will stand up well and afterwards the memory of the experience will only get better with time.

The good news about all of this is that while the short term stress of changing your gift-giving traditions might be hard it is still true that presents are not what Christmas is about and the stress is likely to be forgotten in time while fond memories of time spent together as a family only get sweeter.

photo credit: 1

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Get the Tickets, Forget the Presents

what_makes_happy_christmasWith Christmas just past I think it’s a good time to talk about how little presents matter.


Wasn’t this supposed to be a blog about giving gifts?

Well, yes, it is, and I am still continuing in my quest to give better gifts, but for as much as I talk about picking better gifts I think it’s important to keep the giving of gifts in perspective.

Plus I just came across one a silly little psychology paper that I just have to share with you.

What Makes For a Merry Christmas?

The above is actually the title for an article I just read by Tim Kasser and Ken Sheldon and, in their defense, it’s not that silly an article.   They ask what makes people happy at Christmas.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is the same as what makes people happy at other times of the year – spending time with family, practicing your religion, and not spending too much of your time or energy going shopping.

The findings are nothing new or surprising, but I did think that they are good to remember from time to time.  There is a lot of ‘keep up with the Jones’ pressure to spend more on presents but there is absolutely ZERO evidence that spending more money on presents makes either the purchasers or the receivers happier.

Being close to my family

The authors did find that people are happier at Christmas than they are at other times of the year, but  it was because they reported spending more time with their family.

They may have come together to exchange presents, but it was the coming together that was important.  (Number two was practicing their religion but that is between you and you… um… yeah.)

Hence the title of the post – try to spend more time with your family next Christmas.  If it comes down to buying plane tickets or buying presents…

What Does This Mean for Gift Selection

I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving gifts, as you might imagine I think it’s a ton of fun.  So what does the above mean for picking gifts?

1. Spend more time getting to know your recipients.

You should already, at a minimum, be asking your recipients what they want.  You can really get into this and use that phone call to take an interest in your loved ones.  If you are going to get your cousin a football-themed gift take a few minutes to talk football with him.  You don’t have to like it like him (I don’t) but try to understand why he likes it.

2. Don’t keep up with the Jones’

Don’t try to ‘wow’ your recipient with big ticket items, the return on your investment is just not that great.  Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, or the Smiths, or the Chandreshekars, or anyone else.  They are all jerks, I checked.

3. Give more experience gifts that you participate in

A lunch out together is a great gift that I feel like I never remember to give.  Instead of a gift card give a shopping trip together.  Presumably you like this person you are giving a gift to, so do the gift with them, don’t just send them away with a box.  You’ll both be happier for it.

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How to Make Any Gift More Appealing Without Spending More Money

Bird carrying lunchI found a free lunch.

I write about how to pick gifts for people and you’ve probably done lots of searching over your life for the perfect gift.

We’ve all been there.

Once you pick the gift that’s it, though right? You’re done?

As you might suspect, no.  I recently read about a weird trick that will make your gift recipient enjoy your gift more, no matter what that gift is. Let me fill you in.

Last Time on DuckDuckGift

In the last few posts here on DuckDuckGift I’ve been dissecting a paper from a pair of happiness researchers at Cornell that looks at how we value experiences vs. material possessions.

The article has several things to say about picking gifts.  Importantly that experience gifts are generally better than material gifts  even if they can sometimes be harder to select.  This is because dollar-for-dollar we enjoy experiences more than things.  Especially as time goes on things break and wear out but memories just get more pleasant.

Experience gifts stand up better when compared to other gifts.  This is because we don’t tend to compare experiences the way we compare things.  We don’t look for ‘the best’ experience like we look for ‘the best’ car.  This is important for gifts because your recipient already has gift wishes in mind – sometimes it’s hard to pick ‘the best’ gift that will compare well to their unexpressed desires.

But You Said Any Gift?

Most gifts are material things, though, not experiences.  Most presents given and received are tangible things that you can wrap and put a bow on top of for Christmas morning.  What does any of this have to do with those gifts.

That is another finding in the paper that I think is absolutely fascinating.  They asked people to evaluate how much they enjoyed a boxed set of music.  In one version of the experiment the participants were asked to thing of having the set.  In the other version they were asked to imagine the experience of listening to the music.  The set was the same either way.

The experience-imaginers liked the music quite a bit more.

The effect is not huge but its impact applies to probably every gift that you give.  Almost every gift you gift, after all, comes with a card of some kinds right? What do you put there?

What to Write to Win Their Minds

The surprising finding from the article is that your recipient will enjoy your gift more if you take just a sentence or two to describe the feelings and emotions that you hope the gift will convey to them.

You don’t have to spoil the surprise if you don’t want to either,

  • For CDs – “I hope you connect to these songs the same way that I did and that you come back to them time and again.”
  • A train set – “I hope Aiden has fun putting together lots of different patterns and you have many happy hours playing with your little guy.” (shameless play for parental approval)
  • Boots – “I can’t wait to see the heads turn when you wear these out with us next weekend, you are going to hurt someone.” What is really tickling me about this is that it answers the question of what to write on Christmas cards too.  Maybe you are more creative than me, but I usually go the lazy route and just do a ‘merry Christmas’ or ‘happy birthday’ for everyone.

Writing about the experience is fun and the fact that it helps them enjoy my present more is simply a nice perk.

A third benefit if this appeals to you is that talking about the experiences and emotions that you hope that they have without talking about what the gift is can really increase anticipation of your gift.

“What am I going to connect to?” “What is Aiden going to be building?” “How am I going to turn heads?”  These are the questions that drive men wild with curiosity.  “I think you’ll like it” doesn’t.

Takeaway – Write the Experience

There you go – I didn’t think that anything that I found out when I started learning about gift giving could be that simple or that broadly applicable but writing the experience on a card when you give a gift takes less than five minutes, can be done for anyone, and makes them enjoy your gift better.

Do it.

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