Dedicated to developing good ideas for everyday life, The School of Life explores the many ways we can live wisely and well using philosophy, psychology and cultural theory. With this in mind, we asked them to consider the thought behind how we choose, give and receive — a modern set of how-to’s aimed at helping us to navigate the joys (and pains) of festive gift giving…
It’s relatively easy to buy gifts for children: after all, they frequently tell us exactly what they want. But when choosing gifts for adults, it can feel tortuously difficult — even for those we know quite intimately. With adults, we face a rather perplexing puzzle: we must choose from things which they could buy for themselves, that they would like and yet which they still haven’t bought. We might wonder why they haven’t already bought these things? Perhaps they simply lacked the time. Or perhaps they felt they didn’t deserve something quite so lovely: the fine cashmere jumper or the beautiful bowl is more luxurious than they could possibly allow for themselves.
But with the best gifts, there is often a much deeper reason. We have noticed something around the unrealised needs of the recipient that they had somehow not spotted themselves. It might be a cookery class or a bright orange woolly hat for the stressed out executive or a sky-diving experience for our risk averse friend. When a gift-giver chooses wisely, they achieve something quite rare: they reveal something to the receiver (perhaps something quite obvious in hindsight) that they might not have grasped by themselves. A wise gift is more than just a pair of socks, it represents an epiphany of self-understanding.
It might not do so explicitly, but a good gift encourages. An elegant notebook might inspire self-reflection or more expressive thoughts. A penguin shaped cake plate might spark more playfulness — or at least a moment’s release from our seriousness. A lovely ceramic mug might quietly lobby for the virtues of calm and greater simplicity in our lives — whilst we hold it, we might pause just a little longer between sips to reflect on how we could unburden our day or become more restrained, less judgemental, less busy...
The encouraging gift flatters — not out of insincerity, but in the same way a good parent flatters a child. The parent tells their child they are good and sweet (often, and particularly when they are not) because they know that if they say it enough times the child will eventually believe it, and may begin to behave in good and sweet ways. The same principle of gentle and kind encouragement is often at play with our gifts. With a truly considerate gift, we demonstrate to our loved ones that we cherish not only who they are, but who they might one day become.
Some of the best gifts we receive serve as artefacts; they help us to record the most important truths in our lives. We might despair about losing our child’s first toy or a wedding ring (even when insured) because the meaning of that original token far exceeds its financial worth. It cannot simply be replaced with a physical copy.
In retaining treasured gifts, we can make an attempt to overcome that very human of frailties: our tendency to forget. Like miniature time machines, the gifts we receive draw our attention back to important thoughts and ideas that we frequently struggle to keep in mind. They provide us with something to revisit — even when the giver is not nearby — and perhaps long after they are gone.
It’s natural that we grow apart from old friends and that the important events in our life will fade over time. But through gifts, we can find a renewed connection not only to old friends but to important, but often buried, parts of ourselves. However much we’ve developed in the intervening years, there were truths we knew when we were younger (and that our friends knew about us) that we can forget — and which can be heartening to remember again.
When gifting, it’s fairly easy to feel aggrieved by those who don’t display the appropriate signs of appreciation. But in fact, the only true gift is one that expects nothing in return. It generates no sense of obligation on the receiver — not even a requirement for gratitude (we might recall our agonies as children when forced to compose thank you notes for toys that held little appeal).
This hints at a deeper truth. As children, our carers often gave to us without demanding anything in return. They put their own priorities aside, smiled reassuringly though they were afraid. They encouraged us warmly when our efforts were nothing remarkable. Most of us were never reminded of this tenderness, nor expected to be grateful or even notice how we were helped. Eventually, we are likely to understand — but only years later, and perhaps too late to say thank you or to return the kindness.
A sign of deeper maturity is to give without any expectations. In doing so, we offer the recipient something even richer; the freedom to react as they choose — perhaps with no response at all.
It's excruciatingly uncomfortable when we give a gift and it's appraised – rather than received. The appraiser asks: what is this thing any good for, really? They inspect the gift as they grasp for a pleasantry; or smile without eye contact; perhaps they say how lovely it is one too many times or in too high pitched a voice. In sensing our gaffe, we shrink a little. We feel deflated at having made a poor choice - the mismatch is so obvious now, how could we have got it so wrong?
In contrast, the wise receiver appreciates the act of giving, beyond the gift itself. They connect the gift to the relationship — they see what the gift meant. They appreciate how hard it must have been to find a vase that matched the exact shade of their living room wallpaper. They unwrap a book and remember just how hard we laughed together at the movie. We shouldn’t feel too upset by receiving rather odd or bizarre gifts — for wrapped within them can be quite tender and valuable messages. Even through the strangest or most unsuitable gifts, we are trying to say something important: I want to make you happy, even if I don’t always know how.
If we look purely at the material value of a gift, then its maximum worth to someone is its price. This has led some hard-headed economists to argue that the act of gifting is entirely irrational as it can only destroy value. After all, if each of us knows what we want better than anyone else, isn’t it more logical to just give the money?
On the other hand, purists observe that gifting is far too consumerist, we don’t really need material things at all, we only really need love, friendship, respect...
Both sides have a point. But there may be a third perspective — that gifts can symbolise rather elegantly the most important, yet most intangible truths in our life. Works of art attempt to capture our most valued ideas and ideals in tangible, visual form. In a similar way, a gift can represent in physical terms the ideas we most want to tell our loved ones, but find it perplexingly hard to say. The best gifts do something rather lovely: they make our highest aspirations become a little more real in our daily lives.