If the process of choosing a gift has ever given you a degree of anxiety, you’re in excellent company. There’s a whole history of academic research into the psychological stress of finding the right gift for the right person.

One of the most frequently referenced studies (Wooten, 2001) found a number of reasons for this stress, including uncertainty about gift-giving guidelines, having limited funds to buy a gift, and the inability to control the social impressions made by a particular gift selection.

It all sounds rather antithetical to the spirit of gift-giving, doesn’t it? And yet most of us know this anxiety very well. Sometimes we hit on a good idea for a birthday or anniversary gift, and we feel pretty good about the result. Other times, after putting ourselves through the paces, we settle for a gift card and feel like we’ve not made a real effort.

You’d think the proliferation of online shopping would solve these problems. We can search through an ocean of material gifts. We can use online templates to customise bags and shirts and mugs. We can push a button send just about anything to any doorstep we like.

But all of these options, as wonderful as they are, can also make us feel bogged down, as if material gifts aren’t the answer we’re looking for.

This has a lot to do with the rise of the so-called “experience economy,” in which growing numbers of people prefer experiences over possessions. As a result, givers want to be more creative. In many cases, gifts are becoming more experiential. When we give, we want it to have meaning. We want the recipient to extract deeper value out of it – whether that value is personal, social, spiritual, or any combination thereof. When this happens, we the giver are nourished on a deeper level as well.

Think about the gifts you received on your last three birthdays. Can you remember? The ones that stick with us tend to be the ski trips, the concert tickets, the hot air balloon rides. That’s because, as we’ve mentioned before on the THH blog, our brains use experiences more than objects to shape our identities.

That’s not to say material gifts can’t be meaningful – obviously they can. It really isn’t a question of whether a gift is material or experiential, but whether it feels genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt.

There are challenging life events, for example, where friends and loved ones could use a little support with the basics: Meals, transportation, self-care. People don’t always realise there are vetted, safe, professional services available for these situations – and while it may not be a celebratory gift, it can make a big impact for the timely support it provides.

Giving and receiving without fear

The psychology of gift-giving is a deep and fascinating study – a true reminder that humans are fascinating and complicated creatures. We worry incessantly about choosing the right gift, how it will be received, and what encoded messages we might be sending the receiver.

Could it be that the root of this anxiety is a recognition that giving is the most vital and soul-nourishing action we can perform in life?

The majority of our giving takes place in the form of words, actions, a listening ear. That’s the way it should be. We can’t be giving each other formal gifts every other day. But when we do formalise the act of giving – whether it be a material, experiential, or logistical gift – we want to make it count, both for the receiver’s sake and for our own. So how do we choose meaningful gifts with limitless options at our disposal? The trick might just be to get out of our heads and follow our hearts.