If you want to make your Secret Santa truly happy, psychologists say to think beyond the gift swap.  

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated December 08, 2016
Presents in a Bag
Credit: Getty Images

Want to give gifts that will really make people happy? Think more about how your recipients will actually use them, say the authors of a new study, and less about their reaction when opening the packages.

Yes, the idea of finding a present that will offer a “big reveal” can be appealing, and can add some excitement to an otherwise predictable gift exchange. But unless that present is also going to offer long-term satisfaction, say researchers, it’s not the best use of your money—or your good intentions.

"We are seeing a mismatch between the thought processes and motivations of gift givers and recipients,” Jeff Galak, PhD, professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, said in a press release. “What we found was that the giver wants to ‘wow’ the recipient and give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, while the recipient is more interested in a gift that provides value over time.”

In a review published this month in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Galak and his co-authors examined previous research about commonly held gift-giving beliefs, including how much a gift should cost, whether a gift should be a surprise, and what people on both ends of the exchange really want out of it.

The authors highlight several scenarios in which discrepancies between givers’ and receivers’ opinions are especially evident, and use these as examples of how well-meaning givers can make errors in judgment.

One big mistake, they say, is giving un-requested gifts to people who are likely hoping for something from a registry or pre-written list. “Givers value that an un-requested gift can potentially surprise the recipient upon being opened and demonstrate that the giver actively thought of, and searched for, a gift,” they write. Even so, recipients tend to prefer things they actually asked for, they add, “because such gifts are certain to match their preferences.”

Another unwise choice could be giving a tangible, material gift that looks good wrapped beneath the tree, when experiential purchases—such as theater tickets, vacations, or a massage—have actually been shown to bring people more happiness. (Bonus: They can increase feelings of gratitude, as well.)

And speaking of gratitude, there’s always the temptation to give socially responsible presents, like a donation to a good cause in your giftee’s name. But while they may deliver a momentary “warm glow” to the recipient, the authors say, they’re unlikely to provide much value or satisfaction down the road. In other words, unless people have specifically asked for them (or unless the donation comes with something specific for them, too), it could best to let them make their own charitable contributions, at least according to these findings.

The authors also say that givers shouldn’t necessarily rule out gifts meant to help the recipient meet personal goals, like a gym membership or a fitness tracker. You may worry that such an offering will have negative connotations or make for an awkward exchange, but “recipients may appreciate such gifts more than expected because of their usefulness and relevance to their goals,” they write.

Gift givers may be more likely to make these kinds of “mistakes” when they know a gift will be opened in public—say, at a Secret Santa exchange—than in private, the authors write. But they suggest people should “put themselves in their recipient’s shoes,” and “consider how gifts might provide value to the recipient once the wrapping paper comes off.”

After all, says Galek, the point of exchanging gifts with the people we love is to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them. "By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient's ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients' faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts,” he says.

The bottom line? We know it’s not as much fun to watch someone open a tiny gift-card envelope, or for people to know ahead of time what you’re getting them. But they might be more grateful for it in the long run.