Universiteit Leiden

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Giving makes you happy

Receiving a gift is nice, but giving a present also makes you happy. Development psychologist Mara van der Meulen from the Leiden Consortium on Individual Development (L-CID) answered four questions about giving gifts.

Why does giving a gift make us happy?

‘It’s a way of showing your friends or family that you appreciate them, but different from a hug or a kiss. It’s a form of prosocial behaviour: behaviour that is designed to benefit others. In the short term this gives us a positive feeling: in the scientific world it’s known as the warm glow of giving. It has benefits in the longer term too, because it strengthens the relationship with the recipient. And if you  have a close bond with someone, they will be more likely to help you if you get into difficulties sometime in the future. Research has also shown that other people like you more if you are generous. And people who have a lot of friends are happier than people who feel alone.’  

Does giving someone else a present make us happier than buying something for ourselves? 

‘Research by Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia does show that that is the case. She looked at how much money people spent on themselves and how much they gave to charity. The amount of money that they gave to charity was shown to be a better predictor of happiness than the amount of money they spent on themselves. Of course, these kinds of studies cover large groups of people and it can vary by individual’. 

Are there also people for whom giving something to someone else doesn’t make them happy?

‘There are. One person will feel happier giving something to someone else than another. How prosocial you are depends partly on your personality. It’s not easy to change that, in the same way as if you are introvert or extravert. Childhood experiences also play a role. If you played a lot with children who were good at sharing, it’s more likely that you will be more generous in adulthood. And if your parents  were firm believers in “playing means sharing”, you’ll tend to be more inclined to share when you are older.’

So all these factors determine how keen you are on giving presents to family and friends at Christmas?

‘Family traditions also play a role. If you received a big bag of presents during the holidays when you were a child, you will probably do the same for your own children, because you still feel that sense of happiness that you felt as a child. And, on top of that, we’re “expected” to give one another presents at Christmas. Our Western society is individualist. You may sometimes not see one another as a family for a long time. When you do finally get together to celebrate the holidays, you want to make the relationship special, and one of the ways of doing that is by giving one another nice presents.’

Text: Carin Röst

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