The joy of giving

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On Christmas Eve, presents are a must in most households. Unwrapping colorful packages makes children and adults happy. Many people are even more comfortable than giving presents themselves when they make someone else happy – as science has shown.

Once again, this year, many Austrians have been searching for the perfect Christmas gifts for their family, friends, and acquaintances. Receiving gifts makes people happy, but according to Viennese psychologist and happiness researcher Heide-Marie Smolka, in many cases, this is only partly due to the gift itself.

Especially with close friends and close family members, the thought often trumps the material. “Receiving a gift is a signal of appreciation. When I receive something from someone, I know this person has put thought into it, this person has taken time to do it, and this person cares about giving me pleasure,” Smolka explains.

Selflessness makes people happy
The Bible already says that giving is more of a blessing than receiving. According to the happiness researcher, this also applies to the exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve. Making someone else, a joy can prepare more lucky feelings than even being presented. Several studies conducted in recent years, such as a study by U.S. social psychologist Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, bear witness to this.

O’Brien gave nearly one hundred students five U.S. dollars a day for five days in 2018. One group was to spend the money on themselves, while the second group had to use it to give someone else a treat. At the end of each day, the subjects reflected on their experience, financial spending, and overall happiness and satisfaction.

Sense of happiness remains in the long term
For the students who spent the money on themselves, the associated happiness feeling decreased daily. This was not the case for the selfless students. If they gave away the five U.S. dollars as a tip, they still felt at least as happy on the fifth day as they did on the first.

The fact that something like this is possible is an exception in the field of psychology. It is assumed that solid sensations such as joy and happiness become weaker with frequently repeated and endless activities – also known as hedonistic habituation. According to Smolka, why this habituation does not seem to exist when giving gifts to others is still a mystery.

Selfless gift giving?
So even a well-thought-out Christmas gift is usually not entirely selfless; after all, the person from whom the gift comes also gets a particular “joy kick.” “Giving a gift activates the reward system in the brain – that makes people happy, of course,” says Smolka.

For many, it’s also essential to be there when the other person unwraps the gifts. That, too, often serves primarily to promote one’s sense of happiness. “After all, we are highly contagious emotionally. That means that when a person is pleased, I’m happy, too – especially if I’m there to witness it,” explains Smolka.

Taking time
According to the Viennese psychologist, one’s joy in giving also depends on other factors. For example, it makes a difference who the gift is for. On the other hand, she says the time available for planning is also decisive. “Many people do it at the last second, and then it degenerates into stress. Then there’s a lack of ideas, then there’s a lack of time, and then there’s the ‘must,’ that is, the feeling that I have to give something as a gift. That can spoil the joy of giving,” explains Smolka.

Stress and high expectations are the biggest enemies of Christmas joy. Smolka, therefore, advises people to consciously make the preparations and Christmas as calm and relaxed as possible. Not everything has to be perfect, but as long as there is a pleasant get-together, nothing stands in the way of a joyful and festive evening.

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