The Psychology of Gift Giving and Happiness

The holidays are here. For many, if not most, this means the season of gift giving. And with gift giving comes a unique opportunity to express ourselves. The motivations to our gift giving range from the purest altruism to the self-serving appreciation of a job well done and the way we give gifts is reflective of our personalities, sometimes even our gender. Typically, the more we care about someone, the more time we spend thinking and worrying about getting just the right gift, that perfect gift that will delight! Gift giving is a universal way of showing that we care and are appreciative.  It also serves as a means of strengthening bonds.

Psychologist Karen Pine writes: “Gift giving is a social, cultural and economic experience; a material and social communication exchange that is inherent across human societies and instrumental in maintaining social relationships and expressing feelings.” (Psychology of Gift Exchange Mayet, & Pine).

Throughout many societies, the requirement to give may be ingrained as a religious, moral or social necessity. Our motives for giving can include obligation, a desire to give or an obligation to repay.  Advertisers are especially good at creating a culture of gift giving, often guilting us into it with imagined reactions from our loved ones when they see that “perfect” gift.

And while it would be ideal that all gift giving was done with selfless intentions, that is not always the case. For some people, especially those who are nervous, anxious, or overly worried about how others see them,  tensions are created in both giving and receiving a gift.  However, most of the time, the giving of gifts are motivated by the altruistic intention of providing the recipient some joy and pleasure.

Gift giving may cause no little anxiety, as we want to make sure that the gifts we give reflect what we feel about the receiver.  We don’t want there to be a disconnect between how the giver and receiver view the gift. The fear is that the reflection of the gift is a mirror or the relationship it represents. When misinterpretations do happen it can be uncomfortable, even embarrassing, for both giver and receiver.  When the gift is much more or much less than was expected, negative feelings will accompany the exchange.

Gender plays a role in gifts we choose.  While women tend to attach more meaning and sentimentality to gifts, men tend to be more practical and give functional gifts.  Most women would not relish a vacuum cleaner as a gift, useful as it may be.

What many researchers have shown is that the giving of gifts provides the giver with as much satisfaction as the recipient by enabling the giver to experience a positive self-concept, to feel generous and valuable.  In other words, it is better to give than to receive, and that if you want to be happy, you’re better off spending on others than on yourself.

According to researcher Elizabeth Dunn, Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, (Science 319, 2008), “how people choose to spend their money is at least as important as how much money they make.”  In this research, Dunn concludes “spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself.”

O. Henry may have summarized the ideal gift giving best in his story, The Gift of the Magi.  It is a gift that is the personification of quality of quantity, the worth of thought over monetary expenditure.  No one after all, can expect to always find the perfect gift. However, like in The Gift of the Magi, it is the thought that lies behind the gift that may cause the real delight.

Photo by: JD Hancock

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