It’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it? After much searching and consideration you’ve found the perfect gift for that special person. A gift that is thoughtful and meaningful, something they will cherish, and which clearly shows how much thought you’ve put into selecting just the right thing.
Gifts are symbolic, and speak to your relationship and shared history. Gifts show what someone means to you - or perhaps what you hope they will mean to you in the future! Gifts can be humorous, affectionate, nurturing, or quietly meaningful. They can say ‘thank you’, ‘you mean a lot to me even if we don’t often catch up’, or even ‘I wish we were closer’. They can wrap up all the unsaid appreciation, gratitude and love that we often don’t have time to appropriately acknowledge.
Culturally, how and when we gift not only celebrates important days, but are used as social capital to mark and foster relationships and encourage closeness, or mark events or achievements. Rituals of gift giving foster mutual obligation, and so nicely tangle us in a social web of gift giving with benefits for the giver and the receiver.
Why does gifting feel so nice?
We often talk about the warm glow that accompanies a generous or unselfish act, and art history are replete with quotes about the benefits of giving; from St Francis of Assisi to Anne Frank, and to Liao Tsu to Dr Maya Angelou - but have you ever paused to consider the emotional and physical benefits of that lovely feeling?
Humans are problem solving creatures
As a species we’re pretty good at solving problems. The screen you’re reading this on is one such example of our human drive to innovate and problem solve. While escaping lions and hunting the next meal are thankfully not front of mind for most urban dwellers these days, we are still wired to constantly scan the environment for problems, threats and opportunities, and figure out ways to solve them.
Now while finding ‘the perfect gift’ for someone special could certainly be called a first world problem; the social, cultural and ritual associations around gift-giving do make it a key part of our social networks and a way to demonstrate social capital and ‘success’. The perfect gift shows effort, value and intent. It’s a problem that you’ve spent time solving.
Ellen J. Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University writes in Psychology today[i] that “every time we do something for someone else we feel effective, useful and generous”.
Finding a gift for someone requires us to pause and reflect on our relationship with the intended recipient. Finding an appropriate gift makes us feel better about ourselves because it shows us (and others) that we’re competent and considerate problem solvers.
Since our brain likes solving problems, it ‘rewards’ us with a hit of oxytocin – the ‘happy hormone’. It’s like a hormonal high-five – reinforcing the benefits of the effort we’ve put in. This is reinforced further when the recipient unwraps our gift and confirms our excellent taste!
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring human hormone produced by the pituitary gland. It is usually linked to breast feeding mothers and *ahem* new relationships, however it plays a much bigger role in our daily lives than you might suspect.
Scholars have found that not only is oxytocin responsible for solidifying parent-child bonds and broader family bonds, it also promotes pro-social behaviour and ‘affiliative motivation’, and even decreases anxiety[ii].
Recent studies have found that oxytocin has been connected with increased generosity[iii] and empathy, and can last for up to two hours. Oxytocin has been proven to be key in animal communication – encouraging positive behaviours in a group[iv] – and some studies even say it can be contagious!
Gifting makes us happy
In addition to the warm glow of oxytocin and the strengthening of social bonds, it turns out that selecting a gift for someone else triggers the happiness centre of our brain.
Research at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia found that in a nationally representative study where participants were randomly assigned to spend money either on themselves or others, that spending money on others was an effective predictor of greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves[v].
It’s the thought that counts
Amazingly, we don’t even need to actually buy a gift to reap the physical and emotional benefits of gift giving – even thinking about it is good for us. A recent study in Switzerland[vi] asked participants to think about giving a gift to a friend, and then performed MRI scans to measure activity in the social, happiness and decision-making parts of the brain. Compared with a control group who were not prompted to think about giving a gift, researchers found that gift-givers brains were not only more generous though out, but also reported higher levels of happiness at the end of the experiment. Importantly, it didn’t seem to matter how much participants had hypothetically decided to spend – just deciding to be generous had the same effect.
In another study it was found that just recalling past occasions when you spent money on others (termed ‘pro-social spending in research circles) contributes to greater levels of happiness and a positive feedback loop that increases the likelihood of pro-social spending in the future. The study also found evidence of what we know intuitively – that when it comes to happiness its how the money is spent, rather than how much is spent, that counts.[vii]
For it is in the giving that we receive
St Francis of Assisi was on the money – there are multiple benefits for us in gifting to others. Of course it doesn’t always have to be a physical or purchased gift – the premise is the same. So if you’re searching for the perfect gift for someone, rest assured that there is scientific evidence to support the premise that ‘it’s the thought that counts’. Your act of generosity doesn’t have to be poetic or larger than life – your thoughtful consideration is the real gift.