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How to Give the Perfect Gift

Make up for last year’s disappointing purchases with these expert tips on finding the perfect present.

| November 29th, 2011
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How to Give the Perfect Gift

The only thing more stressful than shopping for holiday gifts—especially at the last minute—is shopping for bathing suits. In both situations, you’re surrounded by bad lighting and feelings of inadequacy and regret.

Gift giving is often loaded with anxiety because it marries high expectations with immediate feedback: As soon as your husband or mother-in-law unwraps the present, you know right away if they truly liked it (“Wow, this is so great!”) or didn’t (“Oh, how nice”). So it’s no surprise that many of us have cracked under the present pressure, leading us to purchase criminally bad gifts, from the cheetah print Snuggie to a horrible maroon tie (maroon? Really?). Or else by throwing money at the problem by buying an over-the-top, unnecessarily expensive gift when you come up blank on ideas.

So why do we put ourselves through this torture year after year? To boost our bond with family, friends and our bosses, according to Art Markman, Ph.D., YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. “We give gifts to cement family relationships and to solidify certain kinds of work relationships,” he says. “With couples, it’s a way of saying, ‘I was thinking about you and I know you.’”

QUIZ: How Healthy Are Your Relationships?

Adds Frank Flynn, Ph.D., Paul E. Holden professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business: “There are all kinds of reasons people give gifts. Typically, they want to be appreciated by the person they’re giving it to and hoping to not disappoint people and delight them. That can create stress—that they’re going to disappoint the person they care about. It can be an opportunity to fail or succeed.”

Choosing the wrong gift can be a major fail because it can leave the gift recipient feeling like you don’t really know or understand them or that you didn’t bother to give the purchase some real thought. Remember that episode of “Sex and the City” when Mr. Big bought Carrie an expensive duck-shaped Judith Leiber purse? She was so distraught because it was the complete opposite of her sense of style and she felt he didn’t really “get” her after all. “When someone gets you a gift that misses the point, you look at it and think they don’t really know me,” says Markman.

MORE: Gratitude Is Good for Health

Both gift givers and receivers agree that the best presents convey thoughtfulness and consideration—namely, that you’ve thought of the gift recipient as significant, special and as an individual, according to Flynn. “But givers and receivers don’t always agree on what gift sends that signal,” he says. And in some cases, the gift giver is completely wrong and overly-confident about their ability to pick the right present. “The classic example is a wedding,” says Flynn. “On the wedding registry, the couple asks for towels and flatware. The guests think, ‘If I give them towels, how are they are going to appreciate that? I should give them something unique.’ But when the couple receives it, they think, ‘I told you what we wanted and you totally ignored us.’ How is that conveying thoughtfulness? It’s saying, ‘No, I know what you want.’ Everyone has a story of a well-intentioned and expensive gift that’s off-the-mark.”

GALLERY: Holiday Gifts that Give Back

Instead of kicking yourself over the gift you should have gotten and wasting your hard-earned money, keep these tips in mind when you head out on your next holiday shopping excursion:

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