5 great ways to give happiness

A plastic gift card isn't really going to show your best friend you love her. These smart tips help you beat mall stress -- and pick presents your friends and family really want.

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By MP Dunleavey

I love gifts as much as the next person -- love giving 'em, love getting 'em. Gifts are a natural manifestation of the love and joy we hope to share with our nearest and dearest (and sometimes the boss, too).

The trouble is that in many cases—certain holidays, birthdays and artificial pressure-cooker events like Valentine's Day--gift-giving can devolve into an expensive material exchange, in which obligation plays a bigger role than the pleasure we're supposed to be sharing.

It's time for a reality check. Video: $0 gifts between friends

Let's recapture the spirit of giving by taking a hiatus from stuff and focusing on -- I don't know, call me crazy -- how about fun? How about having an unforgettably good time?

Rather than succumb to the undertow of shop-more-buy-more-get-more, we need to admit the painful truth: No one wants another Gap sweater.

What you really, really want

What do you want? What do I want? What do most human beings really secretly hope to find when they tear through the wrapping paper of life?

We want to be happy. We want to revel in our lives – reveling being in particularly short supply for most overtaxed Americans. We want to break out of the tedium of everyday life and remember, as Jim Bouton so memorably wrote in "Ball Four" (my husband's favorite baseball book), to tingle.

So what does that mean, and wouldn't a new iPod count? Video: Give a 'soundtrack to his life'

I spent two years researching a book about what makes people happy, why most people spend money on things that don't make us happy -- and how we can learn to invest more in the stuff that does. (It's called "Money Can Buy Happiness," if you're interested.)

What I discovered: Cashmere hoodies and flat-screen TVs are great, but like most material goods they bring only a fleeting sort of happiness. Video: MP's gift swap

It isn't exactly news; wise men and women have been whistling this tune for thousands of years.

What is new, however, is the proof -- in this case, data from numerous studies by behavioral economists, psychologists and even neurobiologists.

The research strongly indicates that when you invest in

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quality of life -- in your relationships, your health, in peace of mind and taking on the occasional challenge -- you get the kind of happiness that really sticks to your ribs. Video: Getting away from the screaming

This is not an anti-shopping screed. Sometimes a hot new gadget (or even the right pair of earrings) can be truly life-enhancing. And gifts of happiness aren't necessarily cheap or free, although they can be.

But they are, overall, more satisfying -- for the giver and the receiver.

Putting aside the dull economic data, what does giving the gift of happiness really look like?

1. Think life, not stuff

There's a temptation to believe that the necklace you give Mom or the wallet you give your brother will hold more meaning over the years than, say, tickets to the theater, a snowboarding tutorial or a trip to a monster truck rally.

In fact, gifts that involve experiences are often treasured far more. Mom may lose that necklace, but will she ever forget the beer falling on your head at the truck rally? And you won't either.

2. Connect the dots -- er, people

A ton of research makes one thing clear: People are happiest when they are connected to their friends, family, community -- or a combination of the above.

Instead of spending $859 on holiday gifts—the average amount Americans were set to spend in 2007--what if you put your cash toward a big ol' holiday open house? Or a weekend getaway with your spouse, or a spa day with your girlfriends?

You decide what will bring you closer to your sister or best friend: exchanging plastic gift cards (the top gift choice for 69% of consumers) or enjoying girl talk while the authentic desert-clay mask dries on your face. Do you really need time to think about it?

3. Make someone feel better

Whether it's a gift certificate for a reflexology treatment, a private session with a personal trainer or yoga teacher, or your own best back rub -- gifts that enhance health or well-being add up to a lot more than the one-time event itself.

That's more than you can say about the deer-horn salad tongs you ordered in desperation from the registry, the night before your cousin's wedding.

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4. Make time stand still

People are always talking about how little time they have, how much time they waste and what they would give to have a few more hours in the day.

Take the hint and give those you love the most precious gift of all: free time that they can spend on themselves. Video: Fantasizing about the escape

Give your spouse a week without chores, so he or she can spend time doing what they love.

Give the new parents in your life a day or a night off while you handle the diapers and burp cloths.

Offer to help a friend with a project, or retype her résumé or reprogram his new laptop -- whatever will produce a windfall of time in their lives. Video: The gift of 'getting down'

5. Give money

Beth, a former member of the Women in Red group that I write about, says that one of her favorite holiday gifts was a financial-planning session with a pro. A few years ago, her in-laws wanted to give their grown children and their families financial peace of mind, so rather than just give cash gifts, they gave each couple a session with a financial planner.

I know: Financial planning ain't exactly festive. But there is astonishing joy and contentment in knowing that you have a rock-solid financial plan.

I had to end on a financial note because, ultimately, happiness is a financial issue. Of course we are going to spend money on traditional presents throughout the year. You and I will run into each other at the mall, diving for gifts, cards, wrapping paper and tape.

But this year I, for one, plan to invest a lot more in spreading a happier spirit as far and wide as I can via the gifts I give. I'm secretly planning a surprise trip to Kentucky for my husband's 40th birthday. Let's enjoy the time we have.

Talk back: The Women in Red message board