Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gift giving

Gift giving becomes a popular topic for articles and essays in the Christmas / Chanukah season. Authors examine the practice of gift giving through multiple lenses:

·         Economic – analyzing whether giving is irrational or givers receive more than they give, if not in financial terms at least in emotional benefits

·         Psychological – why people give, how they determine to whom give and how much to give, what they hope to gain by giving

·         Marketers – the appeal of certain gifts and ways to make giving a particular gift more attractive

·         Anthropologists – describing cultural variations in gift giving

Here are a few insights that I have gleaned from those essays this year:

·         Economic – Rational economic theory maintains that people should engage in behaviors only if the behaviors produce a gain that equals any cost involved, i.e., give gifts only in exchange for gifts received. The “gifts received” may include the quality of services provided through the year (by a mail carrier or doorman, e.g.), the psychic value the donor experiences in giving the gift (creating a sense of indebtedness or feeling good about self, e.g.), or the expectation of gifts to be received from the recipient). If the rational economists were correct, then the best gift is typically cash: the recipient will know exactly the size of his/her debt to the giver, instead of, as typically happens, underestimating or underappreciating the gift’s value. Yet, people continue to give non-monetary gifts. The gift exchange is more than a simple economic proposition; viewing humans exclusively through an economic lens minimizes human complexity and our multi-dimensional nature.

·         Psychological – people give gifts for a variety of reasons: to feel good, out of a sense of obligation; to help others; to appear generous; etc. Giving easily becomes a source of stress, sometimes as people over-extend financially and sometimes as people desperately search for the perfect gift. Research indicates that the perfect gift rarely exists, that people waste too much time and money trying to find that perfect gift, and that an expensive gift surprisingly often produce disproportionately little psychic benefit for the recipient. Instead, the most appreciated gifts tend to be the gifts that clearly communicate the giver’s affection toward, or appreciation for, the recipient.

·         Marketers – giving a gift encourages potential donors to non-profits give and potential buyers to make a purchase. In other words, caveat emptor – buyer beware!

·         Anthropologists – Catalonians (the residents of Catalonia, in Spain) exchange gifts on January 6, the feast of the three kings (also known as Epiphany). Santa Claus, reindeer, and candy canes are not part of their tradition. Instead, a Royal Mailman listens to children say what they want; then three kings arrive by sailing ship and distribute their gifts.

Theologians and preachers oft hop on the bandwagon, writing about the religious meaning of gift giving (for an example of this genre, read my forthcoming Christmas Eve Ethical Musings post, “A Christmas hope”).

Yet the more I read and reflect on gift giving, the more I realize how little humans truly understand their motivation and the enormous amount of time and energy that many humans devote to that endeavor.

Has your gift giving become a source of stress or is it a source of joy?

Is your gift giving just one more expense or an expression of love?

What are some of the best gifts you have received? What makes those gifts special? What can you incorporate from those insights into your gift giving?

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