At the heart of it, exchanging gifts brings people together. Here’s why, as well as a few tips for being an even better gift giver.
When done right, gift giving makes both the recipient and the giver feel good. While it’s obvious why a great gift results in positive feelings for the recipient, many people find that the joy of opening a box is eclipsed by the happiness of being the one who shopped for a just-right gift.
Research on gift giving shows that feelings of generosity and gratitude, along with a desire to be considered thoughtful and to create joy, all combine to make the exchange of gifts a powerful bonding experience. Here’s why.
1. Gratitude makes us closer.
Gratitude helps us feel happier and more bonded to one another. And when it comes to gift giving, it’s a two-way street. The giver expresses gratitude to the recipient with the gift, and the recipient feels gratitude for the gift they’ve received. “It reinforces the relationship between participants in the gift exchange,” says Mary Steffel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.
2. We’re focused on joy.
When you’re thinking about a gift for someone, you might be hoping it will result in a delighted squeal or huge grin from the recipient, right? “Givers want to choose a gift that will make the recipient smile,” says Steffel, referencing research done in the field.
Just keep in mind that recipients generally want things that are versatile and useful, she says. For example, an all-purpose blender may make a better housewarming gift for your friend who loves to make margaritas than a single-purpose margarita machine that can only make one thing, she says. So focus on the many smiles you’ll be creating down the line by buying a gift they’ll use frequently.
And if gift giving causes you stress, take heart: Your gifts might be more successful than you think. In a survey of 5,000 people, respondents were asked how much joy they felt after receiving a gift. “In general, gift givers underestimated how much joy their gifts would bring,” wrote Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, in an article about the survey results. (The survey was conducted with Kristen Berman, founder of a behavioral design company called Irrational Labs, and Loop Commerce, parent company of GiftNow.)
3. Spending on others makes us happy.
This type of spending is called “prosocial,” and it’s been demonstrated in experiments. “Spending money on other people brings us more happiness than spending on ourselves,” Steffel says. “So gift giving can be one way that we can spend money that not only brings joy to the recipient, but also gives back to ourselves.”
4. Giving makes us feel thoughtful.
When choosing gifts, research shows that people home in on the special qualities of the friend or loved one they’re shopping for—to tailor the gift to who the recipient is and to show how much consideration they put into the present. “Givers care quite a bit about being thoughtful when choosing gifts,” says Steffel, citing her own research. So much so that people will even seek to give carefully individualized gifts in a secret gift exchange, when their identity won’t be known, she adds.
This all sounds well and good—but Steffel points out that focusing on your own gift giving prowess might cause you to miss the mark. “Givers often think that the amount of money they spent, or the amount of thought they put into the gift, is going to increase how positively the recipient feels about the gift,” she says. “And that’s not always the case.” Instead, she recommends focusing on what a recipient would choose for themselves, rather than who that recipient is—and don’t worry about finding something different for each person on your list. The recipients are likely to be happier about their presents.
And dare to go bold. As Ariely’s survey results showed, “risky” gifts, such as jewelry or tickets to an event, were preferred by the survey respondents over “safe” gifts, such as gift cards.
In the end, the research echoes what we know to be true: We’re simply trying to spread happiness by giving gifts—and we’re likely succeeding! So don’t overthink it.“The more you go with your first instinct, the more likely you are to get it right,” Steffel says.