The first thing I do when I’m thinking about buying someone a gift is think about what gifts have meant the most to me in my life. While this might seem selfish, the idea isn’t as simplistic as “oh, I loved that cup I got that one time, and so I should get this person a cup,” the point is to think about what are the qualities of the gift that made it stand out. What about that particular Christmas gift in High School makes me still think about it, what about that moment has stuck, and why. Then, as best as I can, I try and shop with those qualities and values in mind when I think about gift giving with others.
For me, the birthday gift that sticks with me is an Indian beer mug that was bought for me in my 20s by a friend. I loved beer at the time, and I don’t drink it anymore, so it’s not necessarily its function that made me love it so much. It’s at least partially the knowledge that they showed about me, but it’s also the adaptability the gift has had over the years, and it’s hand crafted beauty. For many years I drank beer from it, for several years it held pens on my desk, and now it regularly holds flowers. Every time I see it I get at least a little hint of the joy we all had, high school friends hanging out before adulthood sucked us in.
While I doubt that it cost more than $30 when bought 20 years ago, it’s coming up on it’s third decade of joyful use in my life.
Personally, I think that is why “socks” is the default “bummer” gift in our imagination. Not because socks aren’t wonderful (they are, I have many colorful, beautiful, comfortable socks and I genuinely love them), but because they are among the fastest wearing items in our life. They will wear out, within the year, and you can only sew them so many times before you have to give up.
The purpose it goes back to is some enduring sense of joy. Hopefully it’s a joy that can pivot from year to year, but I don’t think you can predict that very well, and that in some ways that beer mug was a bit of luck on the gift givers part. So, I don’t worry about the future, I just focus on today, and I think to myself, with today in mind, what would bring the purest joy. Sometimes that is consumer electronics if someone is really excited about it. I got my girlfriend a roomba, and we genuinely love watching that mysterious vacuum work, and we are relieved at having to worry about cleaning the apartment less often, and while it won’t stick around for 20 years, it’s providing enough real joy now to be worth the trade off.But there are small gifts, a really nice plant potter for your friend with a green thumb, maybe made by a local ceramic artist. It won’t cost much money, stimulate the local economy, and will provide years of use to someone who appreciates them. And those are something worth looking out for.