We dedicated each week of the holidays to a different kind of giving, telling stories of people who give differently, and giving our customers a few special gifts of our own.


November 14, 2017

Being Present with Presents

A world-renowned Harvard psychologist explains what makes a gift special. By Dan Carroll. Illustrated by Ryan Brondolo.

It’s that time of year again. The air is getting colder, jewel-colored LED-lights are glowing on the trees and the Sunday newspapers are growing thick with glossy holiday-themed circulars. But with the holiday season comes the annual dilemma that many of us tend to ignore until it’s too late: how, exactly, to choose a gift? Thankfully, as with so many confounding subjects, there is a brilliant scientist from Boston to make sense of all of it for us. In this case, it’s the “Mother of Mindfulness,” Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University.

Dr. Langer, author of the pioneering Mindfulness (Merloyd Lawrence, 1990), among other books,has been a leader in the field for over 40 years. Her work has garnered several accolades including, most recently, the Liberty Science Genius Award (think of it as an Oscar, but for science). She is also the founder of the Langer Mindfulness Institute which is focused on researching mindful behavior and teaching workshops on how her research can be implemented into personal and business life. In addition, she created the Langer Mindfulness Scale, a 21-item questionnaire that is used as a training, self-discovery, and research tool to see where an individual lies in four different domains of mindful behavior. But what does the oft-used, commonly misunderstood term mindfulness even mean and how is it going to help you find a gift? The good news is that it’s actually a lot easier than you think.

The data that we’ve collected suggests that virtually all of us are mindless almost all of the time—it’s frightening.|

“Mindfulness is a simple process of actively noticing new things,” says Dr. Langer. “The data that we’ve collected suggests that virtually all of us are mindless almost all of the time—it’s frightening.” The reason for this is that people find it easier to assume that some things never change but in fact, everything is changing around us, all the time. The street you grew up on is still the street you grew up on but houses have been altered, neighbors have come and gone, trees have been cut down, and planted.

Mindfulness and the overly commercialized gift-giving season might initially seem to be opposing forces, but according to Dr. Langer’s research, this isn’t the case. Turns out, if you practice mindfulness while picking out gifts (or making them) for your loved ones, you really can’t go wrong.

“It’s not the activity, it’s the way the activity is engaged,” she says. “If you have an habitual way of shopping, whether it’s online or in a store, and you go through like a robot you’re not going to garner all that the experience could provide for you.” And the potential of those experiences is greater than you might think. Giving mindfully has been shown to enhance your own self-esteem, provide a feeling of competence, and strengthen the relationship with the recipient.

But even knowing this information, shopping for a loved one will still likely continue to be a stressful experience because the practice is an exercise in uncertainty. We all know what it feels like to receive a less-than-perfect gift and we’ve all witnessed pure elation on the part of the recipient when they get just what they wanted (see: every video of a kid in the ’90s getting a Sega Genesis). Obviously, as gifters we prefer the latter but as Dr. Langer points out, there really is no difference between the two.

Think about how the gift speaks to your feelings about them...|

“People are frightened when they’re uncertain because they fear negative outcomes. But when you recognize that outcomes, in and of themselves, are neither positive nor negative the balance depends on how we understand them,” Dr. Langer says. “Think about how the gift speaks to your feelings about them, then you can’t come up with a bad choice.” She uses the example of buying a sweater for somebody. If you get them the wrong size but it’s in their favorite color, it will most likely be well-received because “the gift should convey feelings.”

And don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’ve fallen short in the past; it’s a chance to reflect and learn. Even Dr. Langer has made some missteps. “I used to get my father a tie. And he never wore the ties and after a while what we would do is go into the drawer take out a tie we had already given him, wrap it up and give it again.”

Give the Gift of Harry's

No matter the time of year, Harry’s is always a welcomed present.