"Gift Giving At Holiday Time" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Gift Giving At Holiday Time

December 15th, 2012 - Most everyone enjoys receiving or giving a gift which can be well-appreciated by all concerned—the giver, the receiver and those who have the vicarious pleasure associated with the exchange. Although this practice has been a holiday tradition for eons, much has been written recently as to the reasons behind the behavior of gift giving.

The mystery, excitement, and joy of gift giving have, unfortunately, been overshadowed in recent times by the commercialism associated with the major holidays. During the recent economic downturn excessive and unnecessary sadness and depression may have been due to the false expectations created by many of the industries dependent upon the commerce of gift-production. In 2005, four out of five Americans thought the holidays too materialistic, according to a study by the Center for a New American Dream which promotes responsible consumption.

So, a better understanding of the psychology of exchanging favors—tangible or not—should give all of us more comfort as we navigate the upcoming holidays.

There are five major reasons for gift giving, all of which have positive and not-so-positive motives, according to a Wall Street Journal article on the subject published last December.

First, some gifts are straightforward economic exchanges. A family member or friend would like an article of clothing for work – for instance, a tie, scarf or belt. The receiver wears these accessories almost daily and can always incorporate an additional one into their rotation.

Second, gifts can be used to strengthen a social connection. We typically bring a bottle of wine or a small gift when we are invited to someone’s home for dinner. We express our gratitude for being included. This reason is not related to a holiday or the season of the year.

Third, we have “paternalistic” gifts which are those which we think someone should have. For example, a well-meaning grandparent will give a grandchild a book or these days, a computer program or “app” to help the child at school. We will give a professional colleague a book emphasizing a point we have been trying to make at work. At home, buying a new kitchen utensil or gadget which should help in a utilitarian manner is another well-meaning and “paternalistic” gift. Initially, the receiver may not actually be as appreciative as the giver would hope, but with time the receiver’s behavior may be changed.

Fourth, there is the attractive category of a gift which the receiver really would like but feels guilty buying for him- or herself. When iPads first came out, I was thrilled to receive one as a birthday present from colleagues. I was already very functional with a laptop computer but was also fascinated, as many of us were, with this new technology from Apple. The attractive gift category is one area where gift givers and receivers want to be, but it does take more creativity and thought. Getting into the mind and being able to empathize with the receiver is a wonderful accomplishment.

Fifth and last, the gift giver gains esteem and self-pleasure from giving. The status of the gift giver is elevated by the art and amount of giving. The more lavish and ostentatious the giving, the more prestige accrued.

Dr. Margaret Rucker, a consumer psychologist at the University of California shared, in a New York Times article, that there are additional gender differences in the psychology of gifting. Men are more price-conscious and practical, while women tend to be more concerned about the emotional significance.

Sharing the feelings of caring, showing others around us their importance in our lives, and having an impact are all positives which can be achieved without breaking the bank or having what rational economists call the irrationality of giving a gift. A gift which costs more for the giver but doesn’t hold its value in the eyes of the receiver is the definition of an irrational gift.

Enjoy this season of giving and don’t overly focus on the reasons for gift giving; rather, employ these shared thoughts to help those you care about—and yourself—improve everyone’s quality of life.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.