“‘Tis better to give than to receive,” the adage says, and it’s true. At least, that’s what psychologists tell us today. As I write this, the holiday season is ending, so it seems the perfect time to reflect on gift-giving. The United States is a capitalistic country, and advertising encourages us to buy more. Yet our culture has mixed feelings about gifts. Think about “white elephant” gifts, in which people exchange their junk for someone else's. How about gift limits? It’s where people are limited to a small dollar amount. The worst of these is the “drawing name” game, in which people draw names to see who among a larger group (family or co-workers) they will gift. Personally, I don’t like any of these. If I want to give you a gift, I’ll do so (and you should never yell at me for doing an act of kindness). Really? What’s up with that?
When a gift becomes an obligation or is manipulated, it is no longer a gift, for, by definition, a gift is something given willingly. And here is where psychology comes in. Research now shows that giving does increase the happiness of the giver. So, from a happiness standpoint, it is better to give than to receive.
Psychologists Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton discovered that people who spend their money on others report greater happiness. Now, it’s the giving that’s found to be critical here, not the amount spent. Spending $5 on someone else (for example, buying the next person in line coffee) feels as good to the donor as giving something of greater value. These results suggest that the capacity to derive joy from giving might just be a universal feature of human psychology; adults around the world and even young children experience the emotional benefits from helping others. This is especially true when the following factors are present: 1) the giving enhances social connection, 2) the gift or donation appears to make a difference in someone’s life, and 3) the gift is freely chosen. While we might anticipate the emotional benefits of giving, there are also physical benefits. Older adults who donate more money have better overall health. This includes fewer sleep issues and even better hearing!
So, when you’re making your New Year’s resolutions, make sure to add gift-giving to the list. From giving presents to family and friends, engaging in random acts of kindness, to donating to a worthy cause, you become happier and healthier with each act, too. Making the world a better place has never been easier, for it is truly better to give than to receive.
How might you make giving a priority this year?
Make a list of all the ways you can give. Who, to what cause, when, and where?
Might you include gifts of your time and talents? Volunteering?