On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, a charming tradition took place in front of my son's school. Kids from kindergarten to eighth grade stopped by to drop off little gifts for the cheerful crossing guard, who steadfastly performed her duties daily, rain or shine. The children loved surprising her, and throughout the morning, the stack of gifts got higher and higher.
It's a scene that's stuck with me, reminding me of the joy that can come from expressing gratitude to the people who quietly touch our lives: the office security guard who is upbeat every morning even when you're grumpy, the dental assistant who always squeezes you in, the custodian who keeps your church floors sparkling, the pharmacy assistant who fights with your insurance company.
Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of "The Happiness Project," says focusing on gratitude tends to make people happier. "It's so easy to focus on the negative," Rubin said. "But singling out these people that you often take for granted will make you feel you are honoring the true spirit of the holiday."
So what do you buy for such a wide-ranging group of people of many ages and interests? We asked Candace Ourisman and Ashley Bronczek, the owners of Secretly Gifting, a D.C. present-buying service, to suggest some gifts (not gift cards) for less than $30 that are useful or cozy or fun. Their top picks: a gourmet popcorn set, smartphone-friendly gloves, a nice steel coffee tumbler, slipper socks and a sweet trinket dish.
"An unsung hero is someone who doesn't necessarily receive recognition throughout the year," Bronczek said. "It's someone who contributes to your daily life, whether it's the person who bags your groceries or that barista that gives you a friendly smile at your local coffee shop. We think they all deserve a gift."
Ourisman and Bronczek are often charged with finding presents for people whom gift-givers don't know well. "We usually say, 'If you don't know a person well, just choose one of your favorite things, since you don't know their favorite things,' " Ourisman said.
If you have the time, try to elevate even the smallest gift by wrapping it in beautiful paper or using a festive gift bag. Attach a handwritten tag or card. "The more general the gift, the more important the little note becomes," Ourisman said. "It doesn't have to be drawn out, but something that says a kind word and thank you. That simple message goes a long way."
This exercise could be the gift that keeps on giving.
Amie Gordon, a social psychologist and an expert on topics related to gratitude and well-being, says today's busy lives make it easy to take things for granted. "There is research on gratitude as a form of therapy; it feels so good, people want to keep doing it. It gives a boost to positive emotion — a feeling of connection and purpose."
Gordon adds: "It feels good to make someone else feel good or to say thank you to someone who cheers you up. They may not realize the impact they are having on you. To make them aware of it is a gift in itself."