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The joy of giving

Photo provided by flickr user Visit Finland

The holiday season is a time of year that brings with it twinkling lights, caroling, feasting, sweets, and gift giving.

When it comes to finding the perfect gift, it's easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement. This quest can become obsessional, even for people who are not frequent shoppers. Science is now providing the evidence for what we have long held to be true: that it is better to give than to receive.

 Dr. Lara Aknin, assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, has conducted research on what drives gift-giving behavior. She found that people are happier when engaging in prosocial spending – giving to others – than when spending on themselves.

"I was very interested in how people misinterpret what they think will make them happy,”   said Dr. Aknin.  “What are the primary predictors of happiness and could people be happier spending on other than on themselves?”

In one of her studies, a selection of children’s behaviour towards gift-giving were observed by introducing them to a puppet, named Murphy, and observing how they reacted when the puppet was given edible treats.

Dr. Aknin noted, “We had three scenarios, first we watched kids as Murphy was given treats. Then kids could give the puppet a treat from the researcher’s stash, and lastly kids could give the puppet a treat from their own stash. Findings were two-fold; that kids were happier giving than they were receiving (regardless if it was their treats or the treats that belonged to the experimenter), and furthermore, kids were especially happy when they were able to give away their own treats compared to an identical treat that did not belong to them.  This suggests not only that giving is rewarding, but it is especially rewarding when it involves some personal cost.”

This psychological insight is something that retailers are increasingly focused on. According to Slice Intelligence, an analytics company that tracks e-commerce behavior and trends; online retailers, such Amazon and Ebay, can account 25 percent of the year’s sales between November 1st and December 31st.  Furthermore, this trend is ever increasing year over year.  Slice Intelligence, reported that “Holiday sales in 2016 were 19 percent higher that the year before, powered by a strong Cyber Week and a stronger post-Cyber Week period.” 

Buying gifts for others, however, is not the only way to spread the holiday cheer. Many people choose to give to charity at this time of year.

Charitable giving has become ingrained into our Christmas culture,” said Lori-Ann Keenan, board member for the charity Kids up Front. “Especially this time year, I think people feel that everybody else is doing something good for others, so I’ve got to get on that too.”

 Kids Up Front’s is a charity that focuses on the collection and distribution of tickets to under privileged children across Canada.  Their goal is to collect tickets from individuals in the community that cannot attend an event, and then reach out to their 120 partners to send the tickets to children who could otherwise not afford to go.  The charity, which started in 2000, has now given away 15 million tickets worth $56 million dollars.

 Keenan commented that a key factor impacting people’s charitable nature is seeing how their gift has made an impact.

“We get the kids to write a thank you card, which we then pass on to the ticket giver.  To the receiver it is a very positive to receive that.”

 In one example, a boy got to go to a hockey game for the first time in his life, and having that experience allowed him to relate to his classmates in way that he previously felt excluded from.

“I think what I see is people feeling, hey this does make a difference, that you really can change a life, and if you can afford to give that it warms your heart”, expressed Keenan.

This all suggests that the joy of giving creates a very positive experience for an individual, even more so if the generosity is noticeably impactful. Thus it comes as no surprise that we as a community want to reinforce that positive experience, which is particularly well endorsed over the holiday season. We purchase and give more gifts, so we can essentially purchase more happiness. 

 What can psychology tell us, however, about those holiday Grinches out there who are reluctant to give? Do they experience the happiness reward of giving, even if their heart is three sizes too small, and their gifts come from a feeling of obligation?

 "My research hasn’t looked specifically into the emotional consequences of peer pressure giving,” said Dr. Aknin, “but it could be somewhat of a double-edged sword; people are more likely to give when they think that’s what’s expected of them; however, some of that reward can be dampened when people feel they have been forced to give.”

 This is an important consideration, if gift giving is driven by a social need to be accepted rather than by altruism. 

 There may also be an upper limit to the happiness felt when giving.  Dr. Aknin explained that even though they’ve been looking at short-term benefits, it is understood to be very different from the long-term impact.

“If, for example, you consider an individual taking care of somebody with dementia, the caregiver experiences more value than the care recipient; however there seems to be this important boundary where the caregiver begins to feel exhausted and can’t take care of themselves anymore. At that point, the act of giving does become problematic.”

 An important implication is that much like the caregiver who experiences decreasing benefits for their altruism over time, too much holiday cheer may also lead to burn-out, and lessen the potential rewards of the season.

 So what type of short-term happiness boost can we expect this Christmas?  Well if we follow Slice Intelligence’s predicted retail trends then “the tailwinds are strong, with year-to-date sales up 24 per cent from last year.” 

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