The holidays are officially upon us and the stress of gifting as well. Black Friday, Cyber Monday be damned.

But we’ve all been there. We go out of our way to purchase the “perfect gift,” only to see the recipient nod a little “thanks” in our direction. Or we give a little something, only to see the person’s face light up and joy fills the room.

So before you start sending out gift baskets galore, take a moment to read this post.

Gratitude is a science, and we can measure it

Gift wrapped in measuring tapeWhen it comes to gifting, it turns out there is a science behind it.

Gratitude–which is what gifting is about–actually relieves stress, and can be measured.

Who knew?

Well, apparently Glenn R. Fox, a USC professor who spoke at our firm recently. While Dr. Fox’s talk was on gratitude as a whole, it turns out that they measure gratitude through gift giving. Which, ironically, was perfect timing as my department was getting ready to embark on the our annual “Holiday Gifts” program.

According to Dr. Fox and the research over at USC, gift-giving is “multi-dimensional” and can be measured through the “feeling that arises when we receive something that comes at effort and that fulfills a need.”

Gratitude in the brain
Gratitude uses the brain’s relief, reward and moral processing centers

Quick biology lesson

So what does that mean to us? It means that for both the giver and the receiver, there is a physiological reaction when we buy or receive a gift that is meaningful.

Our brains light up! We have an emotion reaction, which is different than a feeling.  It’s been a long time since I took a biology class, but it all started coming back to me: An emotion is “a constant flow of visible bodily changes, built by evolution to protect the whole organism.” Think “fight or flight.”

But here’s the catch. This isn’t about money. it’s about the effort that goes into securing the gift, and whether or not the gift satisfies a need of the recipient, defined by the recipient.


  • Intention
  • Cost
  • Social hierarchy/closeness
  • Motivation

  • Type of need that is fulfilled
  • Utility
  • Value
  • Personality

Gratitude Exercise #1

I suppose it’s easiest to think about this in the context of a good or bad gift that you’ve received. Dr. Fox left us with three different gratitude exercises. This one is around a gift you’ve received:

What was the gift?

Be as specific as possible, and a gift can be physical or not. Good to be from a person but it doesn’t have to be.

What was the context?

Explain as much as you can remember, take a minute and reflect on everything it took to provide the gift.

What need was fulfilled?

Note what type of need was fulfilled — hunger, safety, fun, creativity, etc., and how it made your life better.

What effort was fulfilled?

How much effort did it take? How busy is this person, were they seeing that you needed help in a particular thing?

It was not hard for me to think of several circumstances where I have received a good or bad gift and the emotions it invoked. I completely know where I stand in your life when you send me a bottle of wine as a gift, for instance.

How to gift?

Do you see where I’m leading you here?

Think about your best client. Your top referral source. That person in your life who went out of their way for you this year. If you know them well, it will be easy to figure out what is important to them, and to find a meaningful gift. It could be:

  • memorabilia from their favorite sports team;
  • a hand-crafted gift you found while on vacation that you hauled back from overseas;
  • an experience you were able to create that they will never forget;
  • a donation to an organization that is important to them.

A $20 eBay find will go much farther than a $100 bottle of wine. You get the idea.

However, what about the people on your list that you don’t know as well?

Social media is a blessing

Time to do some Internet trolling. Check out the social media sites of your client. If you’re not friends on Facebook or Instagram, why not? Friend or follow them. The worst they will do is ignore the request. Most likely they will accept.

But even their LinkedIn profiles or Tweeter feeds should provide you information on their personal interests. It might be a LinkedIn group they are a member of (scroll to the bottom of their profile) or a post on Twitter that reveals a recent trip or experience, or a like or dislike.

Gifting experiences

Several of our attorneys of late have created experiences with their clients that are one of a kind. Going to “old-chella” or the Saints v. Rams game that was one for the ages. But experiences don’t have to be so extreme. It can be showing up and participating in something important to the client (they are performing at a program or donating their time at a shelter). It can be the families getting together for a concert, or play. It can be a chef’s dinner at a favorite restaurant. It can be a book that you recently read, and want to share.

And gifting doesn’t need a special month. When you’re out and about and see something you know your client would appreciate, well, just do it.

Yes, Virginia, gift giving is marketing

My old boss Steve Barrett used to always say that if “you can’t measure it, it isn’t marketing.”

I suppose since we now know that gift giving can be measured, it is marketing. But it’s not really something the marketing department can just do on our own. Yes, across the country, marketing departments are knee-deep in holiday cards, gift baskets, and year-end stuff. … but this is the kinda thing we love to do as well. You can also enlist the your assistant or team, teenage kids, or just have some fun Googling around over a cup of coffee.

And here’s the best part. Whenever possible, personally deliver the gift.