Science Says Giving Gifts Makes You Happier Than Receiving Them

Presenting: a selfish reason to be a little selfless.

the joy of giving
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Scientific research on what makes people happy is still in its early stages, but one thing is certain: when it comes to longevity, at least, giving always beats receiving.

In October, a study found that hugging has just as many health benefits for the hugger as it does for the huggee. Now, a new study forthcoming in Psychological Science has found that the joy of giving outlasts the joy of getting.

It's known that the great barrier to perpetual happiness is hedonic adaptation (otherwise known as the hedonic treadmill), which described the observed tendency that humans seem to have of returning to a relatively stable state of happiness following positive or negative events. (If you've ever gotten a new car or TV or Xbox and felt briefly elated before ceasing to care, you've experienced this phenomenon yourself.)

But this new study by psychology researchers Ed O'Brien of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Samantha Kassirer of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management seems to indicate that giving gifts, rather than getting them, seems to be somewhat of an exemption to the rule.

In the first experiment, 96 university students received $5 every day for five days and were randomly assigned to either spend the money on themselves or spend it on someone else, then evaluated on their levels of happiness. The results clearly showed that those who spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over the five-day period. Those who had, say, left the money in a tip jar or made an online donation to a charity, on the other hand, took just as much joy in the act on the fifth day as they did on the first, even if they were spending the money in the same way over and over again.

In the second experiment, the researchers asked 502 participants to play ten rounds of an online word puzzle game. They won five cents per round and were given the choice to either keep the money or donate it to a charity of their choice. Once again, the self-reported happiness levels of those who gave the money away lasted much longer than those who kept it for themselves.

"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. 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," O'Brien said in a press release.

Even when other variables were controlled, they still found that people seemed to register gift-giving as a new and unique experience, regardless of whether they kept giving the same thing over and over again to the same recipient.

"We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them," O'Brien said. "None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between 'get' and 'give' conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses."

At present, it's unclear as to why this is the case, but the researchers believe that it's possible that when we give as opposed to receive we focus more on the action itself and less on comparisons (i.e. "I'm so happy I donated to this rescue organization," versus "My sister's Christmas present is better than mine, hmph!"). When it comes to giving, at least, it seems it really is the thought that counts.

And for a full summary of all that science knows about what makes people happy (and what doesn't), here's Everything I Learned at Yale's Happiness Course.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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