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American Studies Professor Unwraps a Gift-Giving Dilemma

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An ugly lamp, a too-small sweater, a figurine gathering dust on a shelf. 

“Gifts are one of the most difficult things for people to part with, even when they don’t need, use or even like them,” says Carrie Lane, a Cal State Fullerton professor of American studies. “But people hesitate to get rid of a gifted item because it feels like a slight to the person who gave it to them.”

Lane, who researches contemporary home life and the professional organizing industry, says Americans increasingly are caught between a desire to simplify their lives and a desire to keep spending.

She points to the popularity of organizing and decluttering TV shows such as “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” and “Hoarders” as evidence that many Americans are more interested in purging stuff than accumulating it.

In fact, she says, some thrift stores and charity organizations are now so overwhelmed with donations that they’re turning people away because they have no more room on their shelves and in their storage rooms.

On the other hand, technology continues to make shopping easier, with Adobe Analytics forecasting $143.7 billion in retail spending this holiday season.

“The proliferation of online shopping doesn’t help,” says Lane. “We’ve often searched for and purchased a gift on Amazon before we’ve even stopped to think about whether it’s something the recipient would really need.”

To pare back on material goods this holiday season, Lane suggests giving experiences such as museum memberships and cooking classes or consumable items like baked goods.

“Psychological research has shown that experiences bring greater happiness than things,” shares Lane. “Not only that, but too many belongings can actually increase our stress, according to a study from the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families.” 

As for the gifts people have a hard time letting go of, Lane says professional organizers have several creative strategies for handling these situations.

“Professional organizers will ask clients whether the gift giver would have wanted them to feel burdened by the gift, or whether they might be happier to know the item had been donated to someone else who would use and enjoy it,” she explains. “They also suggest taking a photograph of the item to remember the thoughtfulness of the gift while letting go of the item itself.

“Clearly we’re experiencing a cultural shift around how we think about stuff and its place in our lives, but our gift-giving practices don’t seem to have caught up yet,” says Lane. “People seem to want less stuff for themselves, but they still feel obligated to give stuff to others to demonstrate that they care.”