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People often ask, “What’s the key to happiness?”

I think that question can be answered in a few different ways, depending on the framework used to approach the question.

For instance, one answer is self-knowledge. As the Fifth Splendid Truth holds, we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests, our own values.

Another answer — and maybe the best answer — is relationships. To be happy, we need strong bonds to other people; we need to get support and give support; we need to be able to confide; we need to feel like we belong.

I’ve thought a lot about the role of gifts in our relationships.

Consider these questions:

What’s the most successful gift you’ve ever given? I’ve given two outstanding gifts: I bought my husband a TiVO device when that technology was fairly new, and I bought my sister a treadmill desk (you can read about that gift exchange in Better Than Before, or listen to us talking about it here).

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

Do you like to be surprised by a gift, or to get something you’ve asked for?

Do you like getting gifts—or is it not very important to you?

Are you good at choosing gifts for other people? Some people have a real gift for gift-giving.

Do you feel sad or angry if you don’t get a gift at a traditional time (birthday, holiday, Mother/Father’s day, anniversary)? Be honest!  I know someone who clearly cares a great deal about getting gifts, but rather than admit she’s hurt when she doesn’t get a gift, she tells people, “Gift-giving is a stupid custom.” So guess what. No one feels obligated to give her many gifts.

If someone gives you a gift, do you feel that you must use it? Read the book, eat the chocolate, use the tote-bag. Or even if you don’t use it, do you feel that you must keep it, even if the gift-giver doesn’t know what you’ve done with it?

A gift can be an object you possess, or it can be an experience (like concert tickets), but giving or receiving of a gift is an experience, in itself. (If you want to hear Elizabeth and me discuss the benefits of “buying an experience,” listen to this episode of the podcast.)

Gift-giving can be complicated. We can feel bad about not knowing what to give, or not wanting what we’ve been given, or not getting anything at all…but exchanging gifts can also be a tremendous source of happiness.

How about you? How do you feel about gifts?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home and Better Than Before. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Porapak Apichodilok.