The art and science of giving the most amazing gifts EVER

Gifts rule.  They elevate the gift giver, strengthen the bond of friendship, stimulate the local economy – and hey, they can make the recipient happy, too!

But what distinguishes the great gift from the merely commonplace?

While contemplating a departure gift for a friend who hosted me for a week, I looked back on the best gifts I ever received to come up with this mini-manifesto of kickass gift giving.  Three principles emerged:

  • Positive evocation: The gift must evoke positive feeling through its mere presence – it has to smell, taste, look, sound or feel nice.
  • Mnemogenicity: The gift must remind you of the gift giver – regularly if possible.
  • Longevity: The gift must be the kind of thing that you keep for a long time.

With these criteria in hand, why settle for a great gift when you can go for amazing?  Here are some of the best ones I’ve ever gotten.

1. The extremely useful item of clothing

Actual gift: Red flannel Polo pajama pants.

These are the most comfortable pajama pants known to man.  Seduced by its soft, warm fuzziness, many a college student has relinquished his membership in civilized society by wearing them all day long – even to class.

Why are these pajama pants an amazing gift?  Because they last, evoke positive feelings, and every time I wear them to bed (often!) they remind me of my amazing ex-girlfriend Francesca, and how decadent, warm, soft and fuzzy she was.  Wait, that was the pants.  No, it’s not – those feelings have now been transferred to her.  That’s what good gifts do: they become a hologram of their donor, a stand-in for the whole relationship.

If the ideal gift’s job is to strengthen a bond by evoking positive feelings about the gift giver on a regular basis, then the pajama pants are a champ.  The warmth, comfort and tactile softness of the pajamas are visceral.  Francesca clearly knew what she was doing.

2. A small plant.

Actual gift: a money tree.

Plants are tricky gifts.  They’re like pets, only lower-maintenance.  You don’t want to give someone a hugeass plant that takes up space, especially in cities like New York or Tokyo where space is at a premium.  They’ll either toss the plant or curse you every time they water it.

A small plant, on the other hand, works perfectly – especially for a guy who doesn’t have a lot of plants.  Another ex, Laurel, gave me this money tree as a symbol of prosperity.  It’s small enough to fit on my coffee table and only requires watering once a week.  So not only is it on display all day, but once a week it requires special attention.  And every time it sprouts a new branch or leaf, it’s an occasion for mini-celebration.  It’s alive and dynamic – just like a relationship!  And it fulfills all three criteria of longevity, positive evocation and mnemogenicity.

Women are a crafty bunch, I tell ya.

3. Cool art that you like.

Actual gift: 45cm (1.5ft) statue of Guan-Yin.

My buddy Bobby gave this to me.  We share an interest in Eastern Wisdom, especially Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.  So he knew that a statue of Guan-Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion and one of the immortals of Taoism, would find a place of honor in my household.  It’s a conversation topic, so every time someone asks about it, Bobby gets points.  Bronze statues have been known to last for thousands of years, so the Guan-Yin gets the prize for longevity champ as ‘gift most likely to get passed down to my grandkids.’

Guys can be pretty crafty gift-givers, too, I guess.

Another great item was a beautifully framed photograph of a Fiat 500 on a Roman street, given to me by my friend Stefania.  It’s small, it’s cool, and it’s gonna be on my wall for a while.

4. Extremely useful gadgets.

Actual gift: Amazon kindle.

Gadgets make for tricky gifts.  They’re obsolete as soon as you buy them, they tend to break, and they may not even get that much use.  But if you’re clever, you can get a gizmo that lasts a while and has your recipient praising you to the heavens every time he uses it – a solid compass, a bike-mounted GPS, a sweet power drill, or a Kindle.

Mom got the Kindle for me on my birthday.  Granted, I told her it’s what I wanted.  But you know what?  The best way to get a great gift is to ask the recipient what he wants!  I remember reading an article recently about people being happier when you get them something off their own wish list.  (I’m glad someone else is also getting paid for being Captain Obvious.)

Anyway, since I’m a book fiend and the Kindle feeds directly into that addiction, every use of that gizmo lights up my brain like a supernova, with Mom getting the resulting brownie points.  I take it on all trips, feed it weekly with more books, and fall asleep with it on my chest.

In sum, get the gizmo that feeds your friend’s addiction.  If your friend’s on crack, getting him a cocaine synthesis kit would be a sweet but ultimately misguided gesture, so please find a gadget oriented towards more benign addictions.

5. Fancy bath stuff.

Actual gift: fancy backscrubber and aromatic shower gel.

If you really want to insinuate yourself into the recipient’s psyche, what better way than by reminding him of you when he’s naked and touching himself (assuming you have that kind of relationship)?

Years later, I still use the fancy backscrubber that my German ex Gudrun gave me.  I ran out of the shower gel last year, but it smelled really good, so basically for three years I was rubbing a reminder of Morgan all over my body every time I showered.  Also, smell may be one of the most potent evokers of associative memory.  So if there had been an occasion to share the shower gel with her for some reason, that’s what comes back.  I consider this a form of neurostalking, which is wily, wrong and rather nice.

6. An amazing book.

Actual gift: The Red Book by Carl Jung.

Books make great gifts for book readers.  With public Wish Lists on Amazon, it’s even easier to find one that hits the bullseye of your beneficiary’s brain.  Especially for people who have everything (more and more of the population these days), transformative information artfully presented makes a worthy gift.  I usually have stacks of the Tao Te Ching and The War of Art (by Stephen Pressfield) lying around for precisely this purpose.

But there’s a problem: book lovers have lots of other books, and once yours has been read and shelved, you’ve been relegated to dust-gathering oblivion.  Avoid that ignominious fate by getting a book so cool, so ostentatious, so over-the-top and oversize that it has no choice but to find a place of honor in your friend’s collection.

Case in point: The Red Book by Carl Jung.  1.5×1 foot in size, 9.4 lbs in heft, with a cover as red as a nightmare of world war, it is a presence that cannot be ignored.  It doesn’t fit in any bookshelf, so it has to sit on my coffee table, prompting all visitors to leaf through it in wonder.  The effect of its receipt on me was even more dramatic for being a surprise – my friend Justine sent it to me just because she knew it would hit the sweet-spot of my psyche like nothing else could.  And she was right, which is why for me it’s still Best Gift Ever.

So what’s your Best Gift Ever?  And what made it special for you?

4 Comments on “The art and science of giving the most amazing gifts EVER”

  1. Pingback: Dr. Ali’s Tips for Gift Giving « Want to get high, punk?

  2. MK

    Wow, your idea of great gifts and mine are really different. I’ll scream if someone ever gets me more bath stuff – I’m drowning in it. It’s not a pleasant memory for me. A huge book that has to take up a lot of space? Disrespects my desire to reduce the stuff I have in my life. I already have more plants than I have window space for. I have some great gifts of art already but no space for more. I like the clothing and gadget idea but for me, the greatest gifts are experiences. Take me to a fantastic restaurant, a great play, to your cottage for a weekend. Those are the things I truly treasure.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      Great feedback. I thought about putting experiences in there (concert tickets!), but the fact that I couldn’t come up with any meant that it failed the criteria of mnemogenicity and longevity.

  3. Christine

    Top gifts: 1) A real camera from someone who loved my snapshots and wanted to see what I would do with real equipment. This was a thing that empowered me as an artist and journalist in a huge way, and meant that I was truly seen for who I was- he knew who I was and I didn’t have to ask. 2) A bed. Which the giver hoped would mean that I could never sleep in with anyone else, if at all, at least not without thinking of him. That worked. 3) The cumulative gift of shared time- the most valuable thing in a busy person’s life is sacred set aside for exploration and play, with no purpose. 4) Anything made by someone else that clearly took time or consideration- once a friend sent me a portrait of me with newspaper cutouts of the qualities he liked in me, in a hand made frame. My son is great at giving really personal gifts like that- for example, one year he made custom action figures for each person in the family. They rank in the treasured possessions category for everyone. In general, giving gifts that resonate is the most fun ever. Even better when anonymously done.