November 29, 2021

The gifts that don’t come from a store

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to set aside money for Christmas gifts throughout the year. I put $5 a month in a bank account. Come November, my balance was large enough to impress only a child, but it let me purchase some small gifts for those I loved. It was a meaningful ritual with lessons that remain with me today.

Giving feels good, especially at this time of year. But in a time of supply chain challenges – and amid a crisis that has thrown what really matters into sharp relief – it’s also a nice time of year to think about what we really hope to convey with our generosity. Most of the most valuable gifts we can give aren’t stuck floating offshore on a container ship. You have them in your hands and heart right now.

The magic of giving

Because giving is commonly associated with celebrations and times of cultural significance, some of the reasons we love this ritual are obvious. We celebrate the most meaningful times of our lives with gifts. It is no surprise that we are flooded with positive feelings as someone we love opens our birthday, wedding or graduation present.

But it turns out that giving is inherently good for us. It’s associated with benefits like improved self-esteem, reduced stress and lower levels of depression, along with enhanced satisfaction, happiness and even life span. And although receiving gifts feels good, it really is even better to give than receive. Best of all, giving reinforces social relationships and our enjoyment of time together.

The gifts we can’t buy from a store

Much of what we know about the benefits of giving focuses on charitable giving – AKA, not beautifully wrapped gifts under a tree, although those can be lovely, too. Considering that store shelves may be a bit bare this year, this isn’t a bad time to think about alternative ways to enjoy the ritual of gift-giving. Here are some ideas to try:

A gift from the heart and hands

Nothing says “I care” like a unique handmade gift that took intent, time and creativity to make. It’s OK if you’re not a skilled artisan. Perfect is not the point. It’s about conveying meaning and reinforcing a personal connection. You can’t go wrong with a hand-knit scarf, delicious baked good, or flowers from your own garden.

A gift of service

Think of gifts of service as things you can do for others that they can’t do for themselves. For example, you might have a neighbor who is unable to garden, and her weedy flower beds might be driving her crazy. If an hour in the foliage and soil is pure pleasure for you, you will be able to give her a gift of service that is as beneficial to you as it is to her. Other things you could do might include shoveling snow, washing windows or grocery shopping.

A gift of time

The older I get, the more I realize the value of this finite resource. There’s no one who doesn’t need more of it. Think of the people in your life. How could you share your time in a way that gives them more of their own time? Babysitting is a good example. Spending the evening with a friend’s children so he can enjoy a dinner date or do his own holiday shopping is one of the greatest gifts you can give to a parent.

A gift of attention

Gifts of time are valued, but sometimes there is nothing like your attention. This is about spending time with someone and doing something together – a dinner out, a walk in the park, attending a niece or nephew’s basketball game or listening to an older family member to tell you their stories. Anyone can pop onto Amazon and order a gift. Not everyone makes time to do something meaningful with someone they care about.

The gift of your presence

Have you ever had someone totally set aside their own experience and agenda to just listen to you? This is not a skill we are born with – it takes a lot of intent and discipline to truly hear someone without injecting our own feelings, ideas and experience. It’s also a beautiful gift.

I actually tried this idea myself over the summer. While on a trip home, I took my mom on a drive to a variety of important places from her childhood, and I invited her to just talk – about any and everything that came to mind on our trip down memory lane. I heard stories of her life I’d never known about, and as she shared her thoughts, she also shared her history with me. Fortunately, I captured it all on video, but even if I hadn’t, this time being present with her would have also been a wonderful gift to myself. That’s the great thing about presence. It is intended to take you out of the equation and focus on the person for whom you are holding space. But it feels awfully good to be able to do that for someone.

Workplace gifts that don’t come from a store

Many of these ideas are fairly personal, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be adapted for the workplace. Some possibilities:

  • Offer to pick up a project or series of meetings for a colleague who seems to really need a break.
  • Invite a colleague to share her plans for the holidays and really listen.
  • Fund a group playdate to give family caregivers an afternoon off from the kids (in compliance with local COVID-19 public health policies).
  • Invite the people you work with to share a goal with you (it can be personal or professional), then ask them to share how you can help them achieve it. In fact, there’s a great book for leaders called The Dream Manager. It’s about how leaders can enable employees to realize their dreams – even if they are personal, like buying a home, or ostensibly bad for the company, like helping people find new jobs that will take them elsewhere.

The giving season

This post is not a knock on material gifts and the piles of them that show up at this time of year. Sometimes a present purchased at a store, then wrapped in beautiful paper and tied with a bow is just the thing.

But sometimes it isn’t. Over the years, I have started to see that what really makes people light up are the personal gifts. The things that cost money aren’t always the things that are most valuable. In a world that is often starved for time, attention, presence and care, those are the very gifts many people need most.

My best wishes to all of you this season.

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