Why giving gifts brings you more happiness than receiving them

New psychology research suggests people get more lasting joy from giving gifts.

  • Giving gifts results in longer happiness from the act, says new research.
  • We can sustain the pleasure of a new experience every time we give to others.
  • Hedonic adaptation makes it hard to continuously enjoy spending money on ourselves.

Just in time for the holidays, comes new research that says you get more satisfaction from giving gifts than receiving.

Usually, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation is responsible for us feeling less happiness every time we experience some event or activity again. We get used even to the best things and want more. But when we give to others, something different happens.

Psychology researchers Ed O'Brien from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Samantha Kassirer of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management carried out two studies. They discovered that the happiness of the subjects declined much less or not at all if they repeatedly gave gifts to others as opposed to getting the same gifts themselves.

O'Brien attributes this effect to our desire for new experiences.

"If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we're currently consuming and experience something new," says O'Brien. "Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it."

One of the experiments consisted of having 96 university students getting $5 every day over the course of 5 days. The catch - they had to spend it on the same exact thing either for themselves or someone else (like donating to charity or putting money in a tip jar). At the end of each day, the study participants had to reflect on their spending and level of happiness.

This study showed that over the 5 days, the levels of self-reported happiness decreased for those who spent money on themselves. Those who gave money to someone else did not show such a fade in happiness, however. The joy and satisfaction of giving is just as powerful every time you give it.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Lovers exchange gifts beneath a decorated Christmas tree. December 1955.

For the second experiment, the researchers had 502 online participants play 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. The 5 cents they won each round could be either donated or kept for themselves. After each round, the subjects reported how joyful the winning made them feel. Those who gave the won money away reported their happiness decrease much slower than those who hung on to the gains.

The fuller explanation for why people react this way to giving may lie in the fact, say the researchers, that when we focus on an outcome like a paycheck, we are setting ourselves up for being less happy. Paychecks can be compared to one another, which reduces our sensitivity to each such experience. When we focus on actions, like donating to a charity for example, comparison becomes less important. What happens instead is that we treat each instance of giving as a unique event that can bring us inner satisfaction and elation.

Another reason we don't get used as quickly to happiness from giving is because of the societal benefits that come with it. Giving enhances our "prosocial reputation" and strengthens our sense of connection and belonging to the community.

Check out the new studies online, published in the journal Psychological Science from the Association of Psychological Science.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, especially in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Vikings unwittingly made their swords stronger by trying to imbue them with spirits

They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.

Shutterstock
Culture & Religion
  • Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
  • To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
  • They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less