Forget Valentine’s Day

How to really make someone happy.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

Is there anything sadder than the Valentine’s Day Trifecta (VDT): Bad red wine, wilted roses, and cheap chocolate? Oh wait, there is. It’s when the VDT is accompanied by a stuffed animal, especially if the animal is holding any kind of red velvet heart.

I work at a high school, so I see lots of first-attempts at romantic Valentine's Day gestures and they always make me feel sad. Last year, one teenage boyfriend bought his girlfriend of nine days one of those giant teddy bears at the grocery store next to our school. The poor girl had to drag it around all day and it got covered in dirt and slush and it looked like a refugee from the island of misfit toys. Is that love?

It was easy to laugh at the poor kid who bragged that he spent $65 on it, but at the same time, I felt for him. According to every store and every cheesy movie, Valentine’s Day is a time to show someone how special they are by buying them the same cheap crap that everyone else is buying.

It’s not that I don’t believe in love. And it’s not that I don’t believe in showing affection or buying gifts. It’s just that there’s a better way to make someone feel loved and happy than to grab a handful of junk at Walgreens and call it a day.

The boy who bought the bear missed the mark because he was trying to show off to other people. He wanted them to see his girlfriend carrying it around so they would know that she was his. It’s almost kind of primal.

Hopefully, you’re a little more evolved than him, and you recognize that it’s more important to make your person jump for joy (even if it’s just on the inside) than for everyone to notice you and your great gift. If not, you can stop reading here and go buy some big mylar balloons that say “I Love You.”

Making someone happy is simple. All it takes is these two things:

  • Notice something special about them.
  • Go out of your way to show that you noticed it.

Let me explain. Just like an M&M, everybody has an outer shell. On their outer shell, they keep things like their favorite band, favorite color, favorite restaurant. It’s easy to learn about the outer shell. Ask a few basic questions, follow due diligence and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what things they like on the surface.

But beneath that crunchy shell, everyone’s got a thousand other characteristics and preferences that are harder to learn about. You’ve got to pay close attention to them to uncover these hidden quirks and habits. Notice which songs make them tap their toe or which type of hot sauce is always almost empty in their fridge. Notice that their favorite socks have a hole in the toe or when they’re on the second to last page of a favorite notebook.

Once you’ve noticed something special, the next step is to figure out something meaningful to do about it. Sure, sometimes it might mean buying a gift. Even a small gift — like hot sauce or socks — can be special when it comes from the right place. But you can also make someone happy without dropping a dime. Time can be a great gift. If your person is a writer, ask them to read you something they’ve written. If your person is a foodie, learn a new recipe and cook it for them — maybe using a new kind of hot sauce.

Earlier this week, I came into our kitchen and found a bag of organic Honeycrisp apples on the table. I’m an apple snob and Honeycrisps are my favorite, but I rarely buy them because they are so expensive. My husband was at work, but when I talked to him later that night, I asked about the apples. He told me he noticed I was out, so he stopped and picked some up. I don’t talk about my apple preferences a lot, but somehow he knew which ones would tickle my fancy.

It was a small gesture, but it made me feel warm and loved that day and every day for the rest of the week when I sliced into that firm, juicy, Honeycrisp flesh.

That’s a pretty good deal for six bucks and a ten minute trip to the grocery store.

It made me feel good that even after two kids and eleven years of marriage, my husband still pays attention to little things, like which kind of apples I love. And I know he hates going to the grocery store, so the fact that he took a little side trip just for me made the gesture even sweeter.

As humans, we evolved to like pretty things and to eat sweet treats. But more importantly, we evolved as social creatures. Above all else, we want to feel connected to people. We want to feel seen and appreciated. We did not evolve to want generic last-minute presents that came from a sweatshop in Indonesia.

So this year, be brave and skip the VDT. Instead, pay attention to the people you care about. Notice the small special things that make them unique. Think outside the box and find cool, unique ways to make them feel warm and loved in a way that grocery store flowers or gas station chocolates never could.

A week from now, all the candy will be eaten, the roses will be wilted and the wine bottles will be empty and forgotten. But the people you care about will still be around. So forget about what everyone else thinks. Do something thoughtful, do something great. Wrap them up in a blanket of metaphorical happiness. Clean their fridge, polish their boots, paint them a picture. And yes, you could also buy them a gift.

Just as long as it’s not a giant bear with a bow-tie and a top-hat.

Big fan of good books, funny looking animals, and great stories. Always ready for the next big thing.

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