by Suzee Connole

My siblings and I do a gift swap every year for Christmas. There are only three of us, but we opt to each focus on one person, allowing us to seek a nice, thought-out present showing how much we appreciate each other. Last year, I gifted Matthew with apparel from his favorite sports teams, ranging from college football (Roll Tide!) to professional baseball. This year, I bought Kate … well, you’ll have to wait ’til Christmas to find out! Sorry, Kate!

Our swap got me thinking: Can I gift more than material items? I’m not trying to be stingy here. I love watching people unwrap presents. Some tear through the wrapping paper without hesitation. They are so excited to see what is hiding behind the white snowflakes on blue paper, with the “From Santa” tag that has handwriting strangely similar to their mother’s (at least my tags do!). Others are slow and methodical when removing ribbons from shimmery bags.

I cannot possibly buy gifts for everyone I feel is deserving of them. For those I cannot gift with physical items, I intend to gift with so much more. My goal is to gift humor, heart, attention, empathy—whatever I can to everyone who brightens more than my December days.

There are endless studies out there that show the psychological benefits of giving versus receiving. One study in particular explored what people did when given a sum of money. The researchers determined that participants gained more well-being if they applied the money towards others or gave it away, rather than using it to their own advantage. I think a similar result would be achieved if we gifted ourselves or our character strengths to others. It is watching the appreciation of receiving that is most fulfilling.

An unexpected gift, be it from the heart or the wallet, is the one that always sticks with me beyond the initial surprise. While the gesture of a gift is nice, I value the way the giver feels about their relationship with me far more. The exchange gives me a moment to reflect on how the other person has impacted my life. And it validates that the other person feels I hold a special place in their life.

My intention is to do this well beyond the holiday season. I aspire to make this a daily practice—but I know myself, and I need to ease into it. I want to make sure that I am applying my appreciation and intangible gifts in scenarios where they are valued and warranted. And I want to be sure it doesn’t become rote: Sometimes there is a fine line between being genuine and being inauthentic.

Do you have any similar practices you’d like to bring into the holiday season? I would love to hear how others are applying positive psychology practices to their encounters (and their gift giving) at this time of year!

Suzee Connole is the Marketing Assistant for Wholebeing Institute. Part of her role at WBI involves highlighting how alumni, faculty, and guest speakers are taking positive psychology principles and applying them in the communities where they live and work.