By Kathryn Britton

For many cultures, the end of the year is a time to give gifts. Have you ever wondered how to select gifts that have an ongoing positive impact? Positive psychology, the empirical study of what makes people thrive, gives important insights. Martin Seligman, one of the leaders in the field and the author of Authentic Happiness, suggests that there are three parts to a happy life, The Pleasant Life, The Engaged Life, and The Meaningful Life. Thus, we can give gifts that give pleasure, that absorb attention, or that help people live in service of something larger than themselves.

Sadly, we habituate to pleasure gifts. The Pleasant Life is governed by our own personal set ranges for well-being. After wide swings of emotion following events as extreme as winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, people tend to settle back to their habitual levels of life satisfaction. In spite of the tripling of purchasing power in the United States over the last 50 years, the general level of life satisfaction has changed very little.

But the other two pathways to happiness, The Engaged Life and The Meaningful Life, are not constrained by set ranges. So when we give gifts that increase absorbed attention and/or meaning in people%uFFFDs lives, we give gifts that can bring lasting growth in happiness.

For the Engaged Life, give gifts that grow skills, are challenging but not impossibly so, that give frequent feedback, and that the receivers believe are intrinsically worth doing. Here are some examples:

  • Give dance lessons or music lessons. If you have the expertise yourself, so much the better, but if not, there are good teachers around. Maybe you could take the lessons together.
  • Encourage nature-watching habits. For example, give bird feeders, bluebird houses, or binoculars. Convert a passive interest in observation into a growing and active interest.
  • Give materials and lessons for arts and handcrafts.
  • Give tickets to a concert or play. Even better, buy yourself a ticket and go along for the shared experience.
  • Give books that challenge and uplift. This is particularly important for adolescents, who are often assigned very grim and discouraging books at school.
  • Give a treasure chest of coupons redeemable for activities with you. For example, give coupons for a monopoly game or a trip to a ball game or even 24 hours of your time to be used all at once or spread over the next year.
  • Give scrap booking materials and help someone work through photographs to represent his or her personal history. Perhaps hire a personal biographer to help write down his or her story.

For the Meaningful Life, we give gifts that help others live in service of something larger than themselves, whether that be the family or the local community or the world at large. Here are some examples.

  • Give cooking lessons that include preparing food for the local soup kitchen. For example, teach your children to roast a turkey, and then take it together to the local food kitchen.
  • Set up a monthly conference call for your widely dispersed family so you can have a chance to tell and listen to each other%uFFFDs stories.
  • Give someone a trip to visit someone else that they love but have not seen for years.
  • Give a gift to a charity of your friend%uFFFDs choice in his or her honor. It is always fun to give bees or parts of water buffaloes through the Heifer Project.
  • Give someone your time working together on a local volunteer project of their choice. Perhaps it will mean going together to the soup kitchen once a month or working together on a Habitat for Humanity project or at the hospital or wherever is close to your friend's heart.

This is just the beginning of a list to get your creativity going. Good luck!

Kathryn Britton, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, Theano Coaching Service (,

Cosmin Costin Main