11/20/2012 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Holiday Giving

The season of giving is upon us. In the World According to Retail, the holidays are just hours away, and so -- inevitably -- is the high wire act of gift-giving.

Gifts are powerful symbols. In every culture, the choice of object and the manner of presentation carries deep significance.

Why are mere things, objects -- freighted with such emotional weight? The answer is rooted in biology as well as psychology. The first object every human loves is the breast -- the ultimate comfort object -- in fact, one that is essential for an infant's survival and sense of self. Humans are hard-wired to relate to respond emotionally to objects, to see in them all matter of meaning.

During the holiday season, this universal aspect of human culture takes centerstage. That's why holiday shopping, even during a hectic time, requires careful thought--whether it's a business gift or, especially, a personal one.

What is the emotional context of the gift? What is the message you want to convey?

Ideally, a gift says, "I know you, and I value you for who you are." It's especially meaningful, if the gift isn't a shared interest. A gift that recognizes the other person's unique qualities is especially meaningful. There's even an element of self-sacrifice involved, since it has no direct benefit for the giver except seeing pleasure in the eyes of another.

For people who love stuff, gifts have obvious appeal. But for some people stuff comes with mixed feelings. Many people are overly attached to their stuff, and piling on more at the holidays is a double-edged sword.

When thinking about what to give -- remember it's never just about the object, it's about the meaning. At the holidays and all year round, the best message is this: I see who you are, and know what will make you happy.

So, as we rush out to embrace Black Friday, look less at all the merchandise, and more at the person whose heart you want to touch.