The Joy of Gift-Giving

by Maya Shankar

The holiday season is upon us, and as a child, your favourite part was probably the moment you unwrapped the perfect present. As you grow up, however, a new joy surpasses the joy of receiving—the joy of giving. Gift-giving is an important way for humans to interact with each other; as social creatures, we seek community and belonging, and gift-giving is a way for us to strengthen bonds and grow relationships with others. And while you may think the gift-receiver is the one who gets all the benefits of a gift, it is often the gift-giver who benefits the most. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that gift-giving makes us happy, but it turns out that science backs this up.

We all love receiving things; when you get the new sweater you’ve been looking at through the window of a shop, or when you get the raise you’ve been working hard for, there’s always a sense of happiness and satisfaction that accompanies it. However, human beings are quick to adapt. That happiness we feel getting that new sweater doesn’t last forever—we are quick to return to baseline. Using this same logic, one could assume that people would also adapt to the happiness we feel from repeated giving. Researchers Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University were studying just this and came to a heartwarming conclusion when studying the psychology of giving. As they state in their study, it appears that the happiness we get from giving doesn’t fade, but stays constant in each instance of giving.

In one experiment, students received a certain amount of money every day for 5 days and they were randomly assigned to either spend the money on themselves or on someone else, such as dropping the money into a tip jar. From this experiment, researchers found that the students who spent the money on themselves had a steady decline in happiness over the 5 days, but the students who spent their money on someone else were consistently happy; they felt the same amount of joy the first day as they did on the fifth.

In another experiment, participants played an online puzzle game and won a small amount of money in each round. They could then decide to either keep the money or donate it to charity. Again, the results were similar; the participants who kept the money experienced a decline in joy, whereas the participants who donated the money to charity experienced the same level of joy each time they donated.

There are many other studies to suggest what we all experience: giving to someone else makes us happy. So this holiday season, spend some extra time finding the perfect gifts for your loved ones and you’ll be doing yourself a favour! You can gift your best friend a cashmere scarf, cook dinner for your parents one night, or donate your time to a local charity. Any and every instance of giving to someone else can be positive for you and those around you, and we can all use a bit more joy!

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