How to Make the Most of Bad Gifts

Presents are generally terrible, but they can still bring you joy.

Illustration of a child crawling on the floor toward an alligator with a present in its mouth
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.


Around the holidays, you can bet on seeing a car commercial in which a self-assured-looking husband takes his blindfolded wife out to the driveway, where she finds a brand-new luxury car with a massive bow on it. He takes off the blindfold; she screams in delight and throws her arms around his neck. He beams with satisfaction.

“Yeah, right,” my wife scoffed the first time she saw such an ad after moving to the U.S. Then, turning to me, she said, “Please never do something like that.” I understood what she meant. The idea of one spouse deciding on an expensive car for the other seems imprudent at best (isn’t this something she should pick out herself?) and controlling at worst (doesn’t she have a say in a decision like this?).

This is an egregious example, but the truth is, most presents are lousy: value-destroying, manipulative, guilt-provoking, or just plain useless to the person who receives them. But unless your family has opted for a no-gift Christmas this year, you’re probably stuck with the tradition. Instead of fake-smiling through ugly photo frames and novelty coffee mugs, you can instead learn to understand the psychodynamics at work so you can enjoy gifts that aren’t great, refuse them when appropriate, and even make receiving them into an act of giving itself.

A good gift is one that is more valuable for the recipient than it is for the giver. But most gifts destroy value rather than create it. Think of the Christmas-tree-shaped cookie jar that cost your aunt $30 but is worth considerably less than zero to you, posing a moral conundrum: Do you throw it right into the trash or wait a couple of months? The economist Joel Waldfogel calls this discrepancy the “deadweight loss” of gifts, and estimates that, on average, it is from 10 percent to a third of a gift’s price.

One explanation for the deadweight loss is a mismatch between desirability and feasibility. Consider a gadget that is useful (high desirability) but difficult to set up and time-consuming to use (low feasibility). Scholars have found that givers usually focus on desirability, and receivers are more aware of feasibility. Your friend who bought you a fancy wearable fitness tracker probably thought it was a really cool and helpful gift; to you, it seems like a massive headache to figure out, requires an app download and a monthly fee, and offers data that will either make you feel terrible about yourself or turn into a life-ruining obsession. That’s why it is still sitting in your drawer in its original package.

Another happiness-killing mismatch can occur between the receiver’s initial reaction and their long-term satisfaction. As Anna Goldfarb noted in The Atlantic a few weeks ago, givers tend to look for “reaction-maximizing gifts” (such as the wife’s over-the-top response to the car) as opposed to “satisfaction-maximizing gifts.” Once the giver is not present to see the receiver’s reaction, the receiver might not actually be that excited about socks with her best friend’s face on them.

Someone looking for a big reaction might be tempted to buy a wildly expensive gift, which poses its own emotional problems. In the worst cases, they may even be trying to exert dominance over you, or manipulate you into doing them a favor later. Either way, receiving a gift that’s too nice might make you feel guilty. According to one 2019 survey from CompareCards, a LendingTree subsidiary, 46 percent of respondents felt guilty for being unable to give a gift worth as much as the one they received.

In truth, the biggest benefit to most gift giving is to the giver herself. Generosity is truly a way to buy happiness. As my colleague Michael Norton and his co-authors showed in the journal Science in 2008, although spending money on oneself is weakly related to happiness, spending money on others significantly raises the giver’s well-being. Neuroscientists have shown that charitable giving to others engages the mesolimbic reward system, inducing pleasure in one of the same ways that alcohol and certain drugs do. (Maybe this is the real reason Santa is so jolly.)

The logical conclusion from all this research is that the way to find happiness during the holidays is to drop gifts onto your loved ones’ porches, ring the doorbell, and hide in the bushes so they can’t reciprocate. If that seems a bit impractical, here are a few things to try instead.

1. Lower your expectations.

If you are hoping to find a surprise that delights you under the Christmas tree, you will probably be disappointed. Finding a gift that doesn’t destroy value, gives you satisfaction, and doesn’t stimulate guilt is a lot to ask of your friends and family. Go into the holidays assuming that the gifts won’t be that great, because they probably won’t be. Think of present exchanges as simply a fun pastime, not one where you will get something wonderful.

2. Say no to guilt and manipulation.

If you feel that someone is operating on you with a gift that is unexpected or inappropriately generous, you should feel free to exercise the option of refusing it. Be honest: Say, “I couldn’t possibly accept this; it wouldn’t feel right.” If you do want to keep it, commit to acting like the gift really is a gift and not a transaction. Show appropriate gratitude as good manners dictate, but resist the temptation to feel guilty or indebted to the giver.

3. Turn receiving into giving.

Your reaction to a gift—even one that isn’t great—is your choice, and you can choose to make it into a gift to the giver. You don’t have to lie and tell your aunt that the Christmas-tree cookie jar is just your style, but you can definitely find reasons to like it. Maybe it’s whimsical, or it makes you laugh, or you know she put a lot of thought into it. Tell her so, lavishly, with genuine gratitude. You will both get the mesolimbic buzz.

Not long ago, I witnessed this principle in action. A friend of mine had expressed interest in some articles I had written in The Atlantic. So for a gift, I bound up a collection of them into a book and sent it to her—presumptuous of me, to be sure, and easy to imagine a deadweight loss if she thought that links to the internet would have been more convenient. Her response was virtuoso-level gift receiving: She left me a long voice message describing how she liked the paper, the cover, and the artwork, and how much she appreciated the work that went into making it. Her reaction was a gift to me.

This essay has been focused on being a good gift getter in an ambiguous social environment. But you can use the information here to be a better gift giver as well. Make clear to all your recipients that your gifts don’t come with any expectation of getting things in return. Do your best to avoid destroying value. Go for feasibility over desirability, and satisfaction over reaction.

And no matter what, don’t do that car thing.