THE BLOG
12/29/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

New Gift Giving Traditions: How to Give Them What They Really Want, Even if They Dont Know it Yet

With Christmas and Hanukkah finally over, I wanted to take some time to talk about the insanity of our holiday gift-giving traditions. From where I sit, the ritual of exchanging stuff is a total waste of time and money. First of all, I have enough junk in my garage. Second, if I wanted something badly enough, I probably figured out a way to get it for myself already. Third, I hate making that phony "just what I always wanted" speech. Finally, if someone gives me a gift, I feel the need to reciprocate. And, reciprocating takes time, one thing I already don't have enough of.

What about the little children whispering in Santa's ear? Honestly, do they really need more "made in China" crap? A year from now, will this year's Christmas presents mean anything to them?

I understand that some of you don't share my sentiments. Gary Chapman, explains our different perspectives in his book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. (I just wish he had called them The Five Appreciation Languages; love is such a loaded and confusing concept -- but that's for another post.) Chapman says that there are five languages or styles that people use to convey and receive love. Most of us will have a natural preference for one or two of the styles and some discomfort around the others. Understanding these styles and how they are expressed in all close relationships (not only the romantic variety) can help you convey your love and appreciation to the people in your inner circle. (After all, feeling loved and appreciated is what we all want most.) Without this understanding, it's easy to lose that message, especially when someone is using a different style.

Chapman identifies the following five love languages:

Words of Affirmation. People who prefer this styles show others appreciation with unsolicited compliments and praise. Likewise, hearing words of affirmation makes their hearts sing. On the flip side, these people equate the lack of praise with criticism.

Acts of Service. People who prefer this style will do their fair share of the tasks at hand and then go the extra mile. In return, they want others to show appreciation by easing their burdens and responsibilities. When this doesn't happen, they feel unappreciated and disrespected.

Quality Time. People who prefer this style show appreciation with shared time and availability for connection and memory building. On the other hand, when someone is distracted or misses appointments, they feel insulted and angry.

Physical touch. Appropriate in some relationships, not appropriate in others, physical affection can convey powerful messages of comfort and soothing. A pat on the shoulder, a handshake or a hug can be big to people who prefer this style. However, physical touch can be a time bomb. Only touch others when you are sure that it is welcome and appropriate.

Finally, Chapman discusses Gifts. As Chapman explains it, gifts are not about materialism. Instead, for those who prefer this style, the thought and effort put into selecting and giving the gift are what shows that the giver understands and values the receiver. Conversely, a missed birthday or a hasty, thoughtless gift can spell disaster.

Who decided that gifts (of stuff) are the way to show love, appreciation and connection? (Hint: Corporate interests had something to do with this crazy notion.) I wonder how many of you received gifts this holiday season that really spoke to you. In my perfect world, gifts would only be given when the giver was really moved, not when the calendar said it was time. To me, real giving involves the receiver's desires, not the just-buy-more-stuff default setting. (By the way, when you want to know which style will convey a message of appreciation to someone, just look at the style they use to convey appreciation to others. Most of us will give in the style that we want to receive.)

Some gifts are worse than others. Here is my list of the ten worst gifts. Hopefully, you did not get any of these this year:

  1. A scale.
  2. A make-over or a gym membership.
  3. Something that is really for the giver. (For instance the husband who gets his wife tickets to a hockey game.)
  4. A gag gift.
  5. A re-gift, especially something the receiver gave you in a previous year.
  6. Anything sold in a gas station.
  7. An iron, ironing board, or vacuum cleaner. Instead, pay for a cleaning service to come over once a month.
  8. A toilet seat or anything else sold in Home Depot.
  9. Clothes that don't fit.
  10. A book on how to have better sex.

Over the past decade, an abundance of psychological research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than possessions. If you want to learn more, James Hamblin's recent article in The Atlantic explains it well. The bottom line is that while it may be counter-intuitive to expect a shared experience, like a vacation or attending an event, which ends with nothing tangible, to bring on-going pleasure, it does. Ultimately, the stuff we see every day is easy to overlook as the memories of our fleeting shared experiences grow better with time.