Are surprise gifts a bad idea?

Every year around this time we’re all faced with the challenge of picking out the perfect gift for those on our list. And inevitably, the debate emerges: Should we stick with items from their list, or buy something else we think they might like?

The idea of gift giving has evolved in recent years. According to The New York Times:

It’s no longer about this special delightful something from me to you. More and more people have gotten mercenary about the whole thing.

Mercenary indeed. Each year we make long lists of stuff we might like to have, and promptly deliver it to friends and loved ones to make sure they have time to buy before the big day. Instead of exchanging a small, thoughtful gift with our loved ones we are happier to receive only what we want.

This increased happiness is confirmed in a new study by Francis J. Flynn, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Francesca Gino, at the Harvard Business School, called “Give Them What They Want: The Benefits of Explicitness in Gift-Exchange”:

In five experiments, this study demonstrated that people accrued more pleasure from a gift (and were more appreciative of it) if it was something they had requested. What’s more, the study’s subjects rated givers as more thoughtful if they gave from a wish list.

So I’m happier if I get something I wanted, AND I label the giver as more generous?! Sounds like a double win for the Christmas list. It goes on:

Yet the givers (poor saps) wrongly imagined that their giftees would be equally appreciative of gifts that hadn’t been solicited. They were also mistaken in believing a gift of cash would be less welcome.

How did we become so entitled? Or to put it a nicer way, so discerning?

In our world of instant coffee, one-click purchases and on-demand streaming, we have become accustomed to instant gratification. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we deserve (are entitled to) what we want when we want it. Frankly, we’ve decided we shouldn’t have to “deal with” accepting an unwanted gift.

I find it interesting that we (incorrectly) assume recipients will appreciate surprise gifts. Sadly, the phrase “It’s the thought that counts” no longer applies for some recipients. These are a more particular bunch who would prefer that you stick to their lists.

Making a Christmas list certainly has its pros. It might make life easier for givers and provide them an idea of what you like. It might get you exactly what you want. And studies show it might even make you happier.

But you also have to consider the downsides. It takes the creativity and thoughtfulness out of gift giving. It can cause givers to feel restricted or pressured. And there are still some people out there who enjoy the surprise of an unexpected gift. Further, making a list can create an unintended consequence:

“They are getting other people to do their shopping for them. They are exchanging shopping lists and paying for the milestones of life.”

Perhaps another consequence of our consumer-driven society?

With all the talk about unsolicited gifts and Christmas lists, we lose focus of what the Christmas season is really about. It should be about spending time with friends and family. It should be about service to others. It should be about kindness and generosity towards those around you.

What do you think?

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