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Gifts and Experiences: Unlocking Deeper Social Connections and Emotional Support

T he need to belong references the fundamental motivation of human beings to be accepted, whether that is as a member of a social group or within even more intimate interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. It is precisely because human beings hold such strong desires for belonging and social connectedness that maintaining good-quality interpersonal relationships is an essential factor in living a longer and happier life. One way to nurture these relationships is through sharing meaningful gifts and experiences, where the focus is on creating memorable moments rather than on material items. The practice of gifts giving and social support plays a significant role in this process, often enhancing strong social ties, which are crucial for psychological well-being. Well-established research shows that these enhanced social connections, in turn, reduce the risk of poor physical health and mortality (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010). This finding is related to the role of social support, provided through good-quality interpersonal relationships, in acting as a buffer from the adverse physiological effects of acute stressors (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017). Experimental studies provide causal evidence as to the buffer role of social support, for instance, the presence of a close support provider during a stressor buffers individuals from the cardiovascular reactivity of increased pulse rate and blood pressure (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017).

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Furthermore, a romantic partner’s caring verbal support has been shown to reduce the release of the primary stress hormone in the brain – the cortisol reactivity to acute laboratory stressors (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017). This evidence demonstrates the importance of forming and maintaining strong social ties, which helps provide support in times of adversity and non-adversity alike. Feelings of intimacy and attachment, as previously discussed to be linked to positive health outcomes, are sparked through social interactions in which individuals come to feel understood, accepted, and cared for (Conlins & Feeney, 2004). These interactions often involve the sharing of gifts and experiences, enhancing the sense of connection and support. This can include the specific social support interactions previously noted in this paper, as well as the general emotional and physical intimacy shared outside of specific support contexts. Amongst other forms of intimacy, this involves good-quality shared experiences, physical affection, and general companionship. Effective prosocial spending, or “good” gift-giving, is one such essential relationship maintenance behaviour. Although designed to strengthen interpersonal relationships, effective prosocial spending even has intrapersonal benefits on the gift-giver themselves.

But Are All Gifts Created Equal?

The following paper will compare the effects of giving material gifts (e.g., jewelry or clothing) versus giving gifts and experiences such as concert tickets or cooking classes on both the gift-giver and the gift-recipient. Recent research from the Journal of Consumer Research argues that experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts, regardless of whether the gift giver and the recipient share the experience of the gift together or not (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). In testing the primary hypothesis that recipients of experiential gifts will feel more socially connected to their gift giver than recipients of material gifts, the researchers recruited 224 gift givers to participate in their gift giving study and provided them with $10 to spend on a gift for a friend within three days. The gift givers were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions that determined the type of gift they were allowed to purchase: shared experiential gift, non-shared experiential gift, or non-shared material gift. Recipients of shared experiential gifts (M = 0.15, SD = 0.85) and non-shared experiential gifts (M = 0.09, SD = 0.75) reported feeling more connected to their gift giver, as a result of the gift, as compared to those who had received a material gift (M = -0.27, SD = 0.64; both ps < .05).

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The social advantage of giving experiential gifts, in being more socially connecting than material gifts, was present even in a follow-up study with participants who were instructed to recall their experiences receiving either material or experiential gifts (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). This aspect of gifts giving and social support is crucial, as receiving an experiential gift over a material gift again resulted in a greater change in the participants' perceived social connection with the gift-giver. This effect highlights the unique value of gifts and experiences in fostering social bonds (Mexperiential = 0.72, SE = 0.07 vs. Mmaterial = 0.52, SE = 0.07; F(1, 520) = 6.83, p = .009). The social advantage of gifting experiences, demonstrated within this study, cannot be attributed to greater perceived thoughtfulness by the gift-recipient or even the recipients simply liking the experience gift better than the material. The shared experiential gifts, non-shared experiential gifts, and material gifts did not differ in how thoughtful recipients perceived them to be (F(2,107) = 0.17, p > .84). A similar pattern of results was found when investigating how much the recipients liked the gifts, through the self-report measure, it became clear that the recipients did not differ in how much they liked the gift based on the gift-type condition (F(2, 107)=0.17, p >.84).

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If the experiential gifts are no more thoughtful or well-liked than the material gifts, why then, are they consistently more socially connecting? The leading theory is that the underlying mechanism for social connectedness is emotion, particularly, the intensity and valence of emotions experienced during gift consumption between material and gifts and experiences. While material and experiential gifts elicit similar amounts of emotion during a gift exchange, experiential gifts elicit more intense emotions during the gift consumption as the recipient lives through an event (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). For instance, the recipient could feel gratitude whether they are gifted an expensive wallet or a concert ticket to see their favorite band. Although the recipient will likely feel very little while using that wallet in their daily life, the concert will elicit a greater valence of excitement and amusement emotions. This emotional impact is a critical component of gifts giving and social support, where the focus is not just on the item given, but on the emotional connection it fosters. Although people are more inclined to give material gifts, a tendency that is consistent with the perception of gift-givers that physical objects leave longer-lasting impressions, such an inclination is misguided. While much of the research discussed in this paper thus far has focused on the differences between material and experiential gift consumption, hedonic differences occur between gift types even before gift consumption (Kumar et al., 2014). Waiting for experiences generally tends to be more pleasurable than waiting for possessions – the anticipatory consumption of experiential gifts comes from the premise that savoring is the positive utility derived from the anticipation of future consumption (Kumar et al., 2014). In line with this consumer research: consider gifting an experience that will allow for anticipation on behalf of the gift-recipient, not only will it be more pleasurable than material goods during the act of consumption - but before it as well.

Sahra Nikkhah
Psychology Blogger,
The Shared Secrets Lab,
GiftAFeeling Inc.

Read The Official Research Paper On - Gifts and Experiences: Unlocking Deeper Social Connections and Emotional Support

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is a gift of experience?

A gift of experience is giving someone a memorable activity instead of a physical item. It can be a concert ticket, a cooking class, a scenic hot air balloon ride, or a spa day. These gifts create lasting memories, offering unique and personal experiences tailored to the recipient's interests and passions.

2. How do you present gifts with experiences?

Present gifts with experiences by offering them in creative packaging, like a themed gift box or a custom envelope with a hint of the adventure inside. Include a personal note explaining the experience and its significance. Make the presentation as memorable as the experience itself, adding a touch of anticipation and excitement.

3. Why you should gift experiences?

Gifting experiences offers more than just a present; it provides memories. A gifts experience caters to the recipient's interests, making it deeply personal and thoughtful. These experiences, be it adventure trips or spa days, foster happiness and bonding. Unlike physical gifts, a gifts experience creates lasting joy and unforgettable moments.

4. How can I improve my gift-giving experience?

To improve your gift-giving experience, focus on personalization. Understand the recipient's likes and interests to choose a thoughtful gift. Add a personal touch with a handwritten note or custom packaging. Ensure the presentation is as delightful as the gift itself, making the entire experience memorable and heartwarming for the recipient.

5. What does giving the gift of an experience?

Giving the gift of an experience means offering someone a memorable activity rather than a physical item. This could be a concert, a workshop, or a scenic trip. Such gifts provide lasting memories, creating special moments that the recipient can cherish. It's about gifting joy and adventure, not just objects.

6. What are the best gifts and experiences?

The best gifts and experiences are those that align with the recipient's interests and passions. Personalized items, adventure outings, spa days, or cooking classes make great choices. The key is to choose something that offers personal enjoyment and creates lasting memories, making the gift both unique and meaningful.

7. What is the importance of gifts giving and social support in building strong relationships?

Gifts giving and social support are crucial in building strong relationships. They convey love, appreciation, and thoughtfulness, strengthening emotional connections. Providing support during challenging times shows commitment and empathy. These acts nurture trust and understanding, essential for deep and lasting bonds. They play a key role in enhancing mutual respect and affection in relationships.