In recent years, research on gift-giving has taught us a lot about how to give the perfect gift. And now it turns out that giving the perfect gift may be even better than receiving it.
In a new set of studies, Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer found that people experienced more happiness giving to others than receiving the same gifts themselves. In one study, the researchers had people give the exact same gift every day for five days. Each participant received $5 a day and either spent it on themselves or on someone else (donating to an online charity, leaving money in a tip jar). Everyone started off feeling pretty happy as a result of the experiment, but while those who gave the same gift to themselves everyday showed declines in happiness after receiving the same gift repeatedly, those who gave the gift to someone else did not show the same level of decline.
One amazing human tendency is the ability to adapt quickly. So it is not surprising that people did not feel as good about receiving the same gift on the fifth day as they did on the first. However, people didn’t adapt to giving a gift each day, even though they gave the same one. Instead, it appeared to feel fresh and new each time.
In a second study, participants received a nickel for each round of a 10-round game. They either kept it or donated it to charity. As in the first study, those who kept it felt less and less happy after each round, but the happiness of those who donated it to charity declined more slowly.
Why might giving actually be a gift to yourself? The researchers suggest that we may experience less social comparison when we give versus when we receive. Each act of giving may feel like a unique experience rather than a repeat of the same old thing. Giving to others also promotes social connection and feelings of belonging.
One lingering question that I have is whether we would see the same effect if people were receiving a meaningful gift from a loved one. Receiving $5 from a stranger may not induce the same level of happiness as receiving a gift from someone you know. On the other hand, from everything we know about adaptation, I bet that you wouldn’t feel as good on the tenth day of receiving the same gift as you would on the first, even if the gift was from someone you cared about. You might be pleased and grateful the first time your spouse made you morning coffee, but by the tenth time, you’ve sort of come to expect it. Adaptation is an amazing, but sometimes unfortunate, human tendency.
I also wonder if these effects would have been even stronger if people had been thanked for their gift-giving. Feeling appreciated can help enhance feelings of connection and belonging, which reinforces the desire to give.
The next time you have an opportunity to give, think about it as a gift to yourself.
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