On a surface level, there’s little to gain when it comes to gift-giving.
After all, you’re going out of your way – losing time and money – to buy a present for someone else.
And yet it’s hard to deny the warm, fuzzy feeling that floods your heart when someone opens a Christmas present from you.
But gift-giving doesn’t just make us feel nice – it’s good for our health and wellbeing, too.
Food for the soul
Nate Sattazahn, a counsellor from Penn State Health Medical Psychiatry, explained that dopamine – the ‘feel-good’ hormone – is released when we give or receive gifts.
“I give a gift to you, and that helps me, because now your opinion of me changes and that makes me feel good,” Mr Sattazahn said.
“Conversely, you get a gift from me and that reinforces that I like you or care about you, and that makes you feel good.”
Mr Sattazahn said gift-giving was also about appreciating the relationships in our lives.
“We all desire commonality, to fit in and be part of a community,” he said.
Giving and receiving gifts shows that you care and are cared about.
Research collated by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Positive Psychology found the benefits of generosity – giving gifts, money, advice, support, aid or volunteering – reduced blood pressure, improved sleep and was linked to lower rates of heart disease.
Giving for purely selfish reasons, however, failed to bring about these benefits.
When gift-giving came from a genuinely compassionate place or a desire to bond with others, only then were people more likely to feel its positive effects.
It’s the thought that counts
Even thinking about being generous is good for you.
In one study from 2017, researchers in Switzerland told 50 people that they would be receiving 25 Swiss francs a week ($38).
Half of these people were told they would spend the money on themselves (control group), while the other half would spend it on someone they knew (experimental group).
Researchers then performed functional MRI scans on the participants to measure brain activity associated with generosity and happiness.
The results found that a simple public pledge to be generous boosted happiness and generous behaviour in the experimental group, compared to those in the control group.
Researchers found this particularly striking, as participants had neither received or spent any of the money at the time of the experiment.
What kind of gift?
According to Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, there are two strategies for finding the right gift.
One is ‘recipient-centric’, in which you choose a gift that reflects the qualities or interests of the person you’re buying for. And the other option is ‘giver-centric’, where the gift reflects your own personality or interests.
Surprisingly, researchers found people reported feeling more closeness when they received a giver-centric gift.
“It seems there’s greater meaning in giving gifts that reflect your own personality or likes, rather than trying to prove how much you know a person by buying something you think they will like,” Dr Swami said.
He explained that a common trap of recipient-centric gifts is second-guessing what someone would like.
In these situations, it’s better to just ask what the person has on their wish list.
“Research shows that while gift-givers assume people will like requested and unrequested gifts equally, recipients in fact show a clear preference for gifts they have asked for directly,” Dr Swami said.
Not all gifts have to come wrapped, either.
Research conducted by Cornell University showed experiential gifts, such as a special dinner or skydiving, can provide greater satisfaction and happiness than material gifts.
Compared to material gifts, experiential gifts can enhance social relations more effectively, form a bigger part of a person’s identity, and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases.