Why do presents make us happy?

Present and Gift

In the wake of the recent festive season, many of us will be sitting at home surrounded by gifts, most of which we wanted and some of which made us wonder what impression we give to our great-aunt Mabel. The exchange of presents has become firmly routed in cultures around the world, whether during religious events such as Christmas or birthdays and other celebrations. But why do we feel happy when we give and receive gifts? And, perhaps more interestingly, which side of the exchange makes us happiest?

Firstly, let’s note with whom we give and receive presents; family and friends, for the most part. The culture of gift giving is common amongst people who are both fond of one another and want to do something nice for each other. Gifts are a physical and generous representation of this bond given periodically throughout the year. They mean something. They are sentimental. They are personal.

Secondly, let’s take a look at that last point: personal. We all know one person who is particularly difficult to buy for. Hours spent traipsing around the shops or scouring online stores, unable to find anything which quite fits. And yet we still try. Because we’ve all received a gift where it is obvious the giver put absolutely no thought into the item and we don’t want to be that sort of friend. This might make me sound ungrateful, and perhaps I am. But when I unwrapped that hideous pink teddy bear when I was seventeen years old, it was quite obvious my aunt had no idea which niece she was sending the present to. What we as humans appreciate, what makes presents even more special, is when it is apparent the giver has put in the thought and effort to buy (or make) something they know you will like. A cheap or even free thoughtful present is worth far more to us sentimentally than an expensive, impersonal item.

Receiving something we like or want makes us happy. Perhaps this is obvious but let’s take a quick look at the science behind it. When we are very young, we experience great joy every time we receive a present. Christmas morning often sees parents being woken at wholly unpleasant hours to open the presents beneath the tree because the children are too excited to wait any longer. Scientifically explained, the fact that people (Santa or otherwise) have bought items specifically for us makes the brain release serotonin and oxytocin and we just can’t wait to open these presents and express our happiness.

The interesting thing is that giving presents makes humans happy too but not until we get a little older and more mature. Neurological studies have discovered our brains develop to become wired in such a way that we experience a happiness boost when we see our gifts positively received. Endorphins and serotonin are released as we watch the receiver express their thanks and pleasure, in turn making us happy too.

It seems buying presents for one another is always better than buying something for yourself. Although they say money can’t buy happiness, it appears in the case of presents and gifts, money can buy double doses of happiness, both for the receiver and the giver. So the next time someone asks you what you want for your birthday, don’t say ‘I don’t know’ and settle for some money in an envelope; make a suggestion. They’ll receive their happiness endorphins when they give it to you and you’ll be happily filled with serotonin when you unwrap what you wanted.

Which leads me to my final question: is it better to give or receive? To be honest, it depends on the person. When we are younger, receiving is definitely the better option. And at times during our adult life we might recapture that childhood joy. But as we grow up, mature, and become more aware of those around us, many of us receive greater pleasure from giving gifts. Others revert even further and actively dislike receiving gifts. This is perhaps because they are uncomfortable about perceived financial implications of the presents or the fact that they don’t need or want the gift. Our experiences also depend on who receives the gift. If you put a lot of effort into a thoughtful present which is then tossed aside with barely a thank you, those endorphin levels are going to plummet. Our brains and the chemicals released in them are not only personal but easily manipulated, making any definitive answer impossible. To sum up: depending on the giver and depending on the receiver, this article can conclude that giving and receiving both affect create different happiness levels in different people. Comment below which side of the exchange you prefer to be on.