Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
For many cultures, the end of the year is a time to give gifts. Have you ever wondered how to select gifts that have an ongoing positive impact? Do you have people on your list who say “No more stuff, please?” Are there others who are hard to please? Have you been giving gifts to someone so long that it is hard to think of anything?
We can get new ideas from pathways to happiness identified in positive psychology: The Pleasant Life — savoring and basking, The Engaged Life — intense involvement in worthwhile activities, and The Meaningful Life — living in service of something larger than ourselves.
For the Pleasant Life: Pleasure gifts are great, but sadly, people habituate to present pleasure. So think about helping others relive past pleasure, experience current pleasure more intensely, or anticipate future pleasure. Some people get more pleasure out of remembering, others more out of anticipating. Keep this in mind as you think about these ideas:
For pleasure in anticipation:
- Give tickets to a concert or play. Maybe buy yourself a ticket and go along for the shared experience.
- Promise to go visit a distant friend or relative later in the year.
- Give a promise for a rarely enjoyed pleasure such as dinner in a topnotch restaurant.
- Give a child a treasure chest of coupons redeemable for activities with you. For example, give coupons for a monopoly game or a trip to a ball game or even 24 hours of your time to be used all at once or spread over the next year.
For pleasure in the moment:
- Give gifts that require attention to sensory input. I remember a wine tasting kit that helped us pinpoint different aspects of taste.
- Collect feedback on the gifts you give and use that to help the person explore a range of tastes. My husband gives me chocolate and asks for my opinions of each variety. Over time, he has built up an extensive picture of what I like.
For pleasure in remembering:
- Construct a scrapbook with pictures and objects that remind the receiver of a trip or special occasion.
- Make a calendar with pictures that capture the family history of the prior year.
- Make a CD that contains scanned copies of family photos.
- Create a book or poster of family geneaology along with pictures and family stories.
- Record concerts or performances given by members of the family and give the recordings.
- Some people have great stories from long and full lives but are not particularly good at or interested in writing. Give the services of a personal biographer to interview and do the writing. I thank Margaret Greenberg for this idea.
For the Engaged Life, give gifts that grow skills, that are challenging but not impossibly so, that give frequent feedback, and that the receiver believes are intrinsically worth doing. It helps if you have to have a good sense of what your person values, but sometimes helping somebody explore something new is a gift in itself.
- Give dance lessons or music lessons. Maybe you could take the lessons together.
- Encourage nature-watching habits. For example, give bird feeders, bluebird houses, or binoculars.
- Give supplies to convert any passive interest in observation into a growing and active interest.
- Give materials and lessons for arts and handcrafts. I remember the pleasure of receiving a brandnew paintbox with a wide assortment of colors.
- Give books that challenge and uplift. This is particularly important for adolescents, who are often assigned very grim and discouraging books at school.
- Give scrapbooking materials and help someone work through photographs to represent his or her personal history.
For the Meaningful Life, we give gifts that help others live in service of something larger than themselves, whether that be the family or the local community or the world at large.
- Give cooking lessons that include preparing food for the local soup kitchen. For example, teach your children to roast a turkey, and then take it together to the local food kitchen.
- Set up a monthly conference call for your widely dispersed family so you can have a chance to tell and listen to each other’s stories.
- Give someone a trip to visit someone else that they love but have not seen for years.
- Give a gift to a charity of your friend’s choice in his or her honor. It is always fun to give bees or parts of water buffaloes through the Heifer Project.
- Give someone your time working together on a local volunteer project of their choice. Perhaps it will mean going together to the soup kitchen once a month or working together on a Habitat for Humanity project or at the hospital or wherever is close to your friend’s heart.
These are just a few ideas to prime your thinking about gifts that give pleasure through memory or anticipation, that absorb attention, or that help people live in service of something larger than themselves.
Now that I’m back home, I have access to my notes and books.
During our MAPP training, Paul Rozin took us through the discussion of ‘E-R-A’ – Experienced, Remembered, and Anticipated pleasure. He referenced Tibor Scitovsky (1976) in a discussion of the differences between comfort and pleasure. Comforts are background improvements to which people adapt (air conditioning). Pleasures are distinct events to which people do not adapt (evenings with friends). We do not remember or anticipate air conditioning, but we may well anticipate and/or remember an evening with friends. According to Scitovsky, cultures differ in the importance people put on these two domains. He believed that Americans favor comforts much more than do Europeans.
Rozin stated that E-R-A has enormous implications for scripting a life that is remembered positively. He also showed us that people have different E-R-A balances and that people who understand their own E-R-A balances can manipulate their experiences to increase their pleasure. If you favor anticipation, schedule things out in the future with enough time to plan and imagine what is to come. If you favor remembering, don’t forget Kahneman’s peak-end rule — what you remember will be most influenced by the peak moment and the ending. Work hard to end the experience on a happy note.
Wrzesniewski, A., Rozin, P., & Bennett, G. (2002). Working, playing, and eating: Making the most of moments. In C. Keyes and J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well lived, (pp. 185-204). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Scitovsky, T. (1976). The joyless economy: An inquiry into human satisfaction and consumer dissatisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kahneman, D. (2000). Evaluation by moments: past and future. In D. Kahneman & Tversky, A. (eds.). Choices, values, and frames. (Ch. 38). New York: Cambridge University Press.