Attention, last-minute shoppers! What the Freud should you give?
Let’s assume you’re not one of those crazies who tramples over people on Black Friday to do their holiday shopping. You may dread going to the mall or having to set aside a million hours to get out of the addictive void known as Amazon. But instead of bemoaning your predicament, let’s consider gift-giving in a more positive light. Gifts are an opportunity to make someone else smile, and gift-giving has implications for your well-being and social relationships.
Giving gifts can make you happier. An oft-cited study by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues asked over 600 Americans how much money they made and how they spent their money. Regardless of one’s income level, spending more money on others and donating to charity predicted greater happiness, compared to spending money on oneself. Next, the researchers sought causal evidence for the impact of prosocial spending by conducting an experiment. Participants rated their happiness in the morning and were given $5 or $20 to spend that day. They were randomly assigned to either spend the money on themselves or on someone else. At the end of the day, those who spent the money on others—whether it was $5 or $20—were relatively happier.
Why does spending money on others boost your happiness more than spending on yourself? One explanation is that gift-giving strengthens your social relationships. Your family and friends may be appreciative and show more warmth and kindness towards you, thus increasing your happiness. However, this explanation does not account for the boost in happiness from charity donations or giving money to the homeless (which was how some participants reported spending their $5 or $20 in the Dunn experiment). Truly altruistic gift-giving is likely to make you feel like a good, generous person, and that positive self-perception can lift your mood.
“That’s great and all,” you say, “But I still don’t know what to give people!” Choosing a gift that your loved one or friend will appreciate can be difficult, especially if you have those pesky friends who don’t offer any hints as to what they would want. Let me help you out here — people derive more happiness from experiences than from material objects. A series of studies found that experiential purchases (that is, money spent to acquire a life experience) made people happier than material purchases (buying a tangible object). Furthermore, people thought about their experiential purchases more often than their material purchases, and they felt relatively happier when they were remembering their experiences. (By the way, the researchers paid their participants with chocolate bars. SIGN ME UP!) So if you are still not sure about what to give, try tickets to a concert or an event, a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant, or movie tickets. How else are you going to talk someone into going to see The Hobbit with you?
May the hair on your toes never fall out.
Experiences, rather than material goods, make people happier in several ways. First, experiences lead us to feel more socially connected, probably because the experiences are shared with others. Second, you tend not to engage in social comparisons. When you have a material possession, it’s all too common to compare what you have to someone else’s and to start wishing that you had more. Third, you are less likely to undergo hedonic adaptation, in which you get accustomed to something and derive less pleasure from it. Your unique experiences—whether it be hiking through a rainforest, or going dancing with your friends—will continue to bring happiness when you reflect upon them and perhaps even contribute to your self-identity. But, objects are static and unchanging; you may feel stylish the first couple of times you wear your new shoes, but the novelty quickly fades.
The best advice of all is don’t give a shitty gift. Gifts can be important for the development and future of your relationships, especially if you are deciding on a gift for someone you’re dating. In two experiments, people were led to believe that they were given gifts. When an opposite-sex acquaintance supposedly gave an undesirable gift, men perceived themselves to be more dissimilar to her. If the bad gift was from a romantic partner, men felt more dissimilar to their girlfriends AND reported a more negative outlook for the future of the relationship. Surprisingly, after receiving a bad gift, women reported greater similarity to their boyfriends and rated the relationship slightly more positively, which is the opposite of what you’d expect. The researchers speculated that (based on a follow-up study) women were “marshaling their psychological defenses” to protect the relationship.
The bottom line is, give wisely. A thoughtful gift can make both you and the recipient happier.