12/15/2014 10:02 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

The Holiday Gift You Alone Can Give

Oliver Rossi via Getty Images

The buzz and bustle of the holiday season is upon us, and with it comes the frantic search for 'perfect gifts' for our loved ones, the over-scheduled holiday parties we 'must' attend, and the rush to get our decorations up without getting worn down. As cheery holiday tunes begin to take over the radio waves, we rely more than ever on Google calendars, Facebook reminders, and even shopping-specific apps--PriceBlink, Centrallo, and RetailMeNot to name a few--in order to make it through to the new year.

Yet at a time when holiday purchases and gatherings are easier to organize than ever before, in some ways they have become more complicated. Between doing our digital research, making our digital lists, and creating our digital invites, there seems to be a sneaking suspicion that the more time we spend in our digital world, the less time we spend with the very people we aim to show our love.

This feeling is nothing new, of course. We've known, and even started to bemoan, that our digital connectedness can interrupt our human interactions, and the holiday season is no exception: friends seated around a dinner table, each fully engaged in the glowing screen of his or her smartphone instead of the present, human company; a colleague only partially listening to your conversation because he's sending an invite to meet via text at the same time; nearly colliding with a Christmas-tree vendor on a city street because you're too engrossed in reading an email in the palm of your hand to concentrate on walking courteously.

And yet, we continue to treat these situations as benign and even comical--we pay no mind to these 'tech traps' as they grab hold of us unaware, snagging us into a cultivated space of disconnection, a disconnect that puts our relationships and holiday celebrations--particularly, our ability to connect with loved ones--in a whole new light, and not the comforting glow of our twinkling Christmas tree.

Just how many different ways do we end up losing the heart of the holidays when we don't pay attention to our digital addictions?

For one, there's the perpetual distraction that results from operating in a constant, simultaneous array of browser and application windows: we think we're being efficient, and yet medical and social science research shows that multitasking actually makes us less efficient (and less present for the people with whom we interact). If we're at a holiday party, and also checking social media throughout, or catching up on a call, but also writing up cards and emailing invites, are we present at all in any of those spaces?

We can also count the endless exposure to information online that should help us build empathy with diverse points of view (a skill rumored to be especially important this time of year, when families and colleagues are forced to come together). Yet in online worlds, we naturally end up following people and viewpoints who represent, not challenge, our existing ideals. How can we foster holiday cheer if we're losing our ability to facilitate meaningful dialogue?

Then there are those awesome apps that revolve around our personal schedules, and the search engines that make us instant experts on any topic. For all we gain from these conveniences, we also risk losing our loved ones if we end up adopting self-centered, arrogant behaviors.

Lastly, let's not forget that our ever-rising level of impatience is a nearly unavoidable vice in a world where our weather forecasts, driving directions, and song requests are instantly at our fingertips. If we're not careful, we begin to expect such unrealistic immediacy from the people around us who, unlike machines, cannot give us information or answers at the click of a button.

That said, it's important to note that apps and social media channels are also incredibly powerful tools, as they allow us to create and maintain strong relationships with loved ones who we rarely get to see. They allow us to narrow information down to a manageable level and organize our complex lives. They encourage us to spread information by word of mouth and gain new supporters for great causes. They enable us to communicate with loved ones all over the planet, and preserve precious holiday reunion traditions even when we're far away. Our digital connectedness is fantastic - but only if used with a little mindfulness. Otherwise, the more "connected" we become to vast networks and devices, the less in touch we might become with the people immediately around us.

In such a hyper-connected holiday season, perhaps the best gift we can give our loved ones is actually the simplest (though by no means the easiest): our time and our undivided attention. Our presence.

This can be as simple as silencing our phones, putting down our iPads, or looking away from the computer screen when we're with another person. It can mean just taking a moment to look around, find a human focus, reengage our empathy, grab for some humility, and have a little patience. Focused, empathetic, humble, and patient behaviors--these are four simple gifts that allow you to be present with those you love. And they're gifts that are not limited to your family and friends; you can give them to everyone in your life, from the barista serving you up that peppermint mocha latte, to the person giftwrapping your purchase at the department store.

So why not give 'presence' a try this holiday season? Work on a project with your child (or parent); cook a meal with your classmate or colleague; initiate a new tradition of once-weekly no-device date night. Or try pairing 'presence' with a gift you already plan to give. Buy your friend those killer concert tickets, but agree to ditch your recording devices at the show; experience it with one another and not through a screen. Or get your sibling that latest GoPro, on the premise that you'll take a few days off (and offline) to use it together on an adventurous trip.

The gift of presence is certainly not a low-cost investment; the energy required to pull away from our Facebook feeds and abandon our email inboxes is formidable, in fact most days it feels simply insurmountable. But giving your 'presence' is the rarest gift, one that you alone can offer, and beautifully, one that leaves both recipient and giver all the better.