Why We Love to Give

“It’s better to give than to receive.”

We’ve all heard that saying, but that doesn’t mean we truly believe it. Sure, it’s good to give a gift to someone else. We get the satisfaction of seeing their face light up and knowing that we have made them happy. But how could that possibly be better than receiving a gift yourself?

It turns out that the old proverb is more than just wishful thinking, though. Giving actually can be better than receiving, for a variety of reasons—and it’s a proven scientific fact.

'Tis The Reason

‘Tis the Reason

We do give gifts—a lot. The total value of all gifts given in the U.S., including charitable donations and volunteering, exceeds half a trillion dollars each year.

Why do we give so much? There are several different reasons for giving gifts, including:

To show love.

Giving someone a gift expresses how much we care about them, in a way that goes beyond just words.

To show gratitude.

Gifts are often used to say “thank you” to people who have helped us out in some way.

To get something in return.

A gift may be given in hopes of getting something back, such as sending a gift to a business prospect when trying to score a sale.

To meet expectations.

Sometimes gifts are expected of us, such as when attending a wedding. We may then give a gift partly to avoid disappointing anyone.

To make a difference.

Charitable giving can be used to help a cause we care about, or to leave a legacy with our lives.

In each case, there is some (often small) benefit to the person giving the gift. But that is only part of the story.

Giving Happiness

Giving Happiness

Here’s some news that should add some additional cheer to your holiday shopping season: giving gifts to others can help make you happier, regardless of what you may get in return.

Surveys have shown that, all else being equal, people who give more are happier. For example, one study surveyed employees when they received a profit-sharing bonus. Those who spent more of the bonus on gifts for others reported an increase in happiness. Spending more money on things they wanted for themselves, though, had zero impact on how happy they felt.

“Giving your money to others instead of spending it on yourself provides a bigger happiness bang for your buck,” explained Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, co-authors of the study and of the book Happy Money: The Science of Spending. “When you use your money to buy stuff for yourself, you’re leaving happiness on the table.”

The link between giving and happiness seems to hold true for everyone. Another massive study involving more than 230,000 people around the world found that people everywhere were happier when they gave more, regardless of culture or income differences.

Healthy Giving

Healthy Giving

Need another reason to be happy about giving? It appears that giving gifts is also good for your health, and can even help you live longer.

Research has shown that being generous with your money or time can improve immunity, reduce physical pain, and lower the risk of depression or heart disease. A five-year study in Detroit even discovered that people who helped others were better able to handle—and survive—stressful events in their own lives. Folks who lent a hand to those in need had a lower mortality rate than those who did not, and seemed to benefit more than the ones receiving the help.

The Chemistry of Giving

The Chemistry of Giving

So how does the act of giving a gift manage to make us healthier and happier? It has a lot to do with chemistry—and your brain.

Stress hormones, which can make you tense and unhappy, tend to decrease when you give gifts. At the same time, the act of giving releases endorphins and dopamine within your brain. These natural chemicals are part of the body’s reward system, and are designed specifically to make you feel good.

That “warm glow” that you feel when giving a gift is a result of such changes to your brain chemistry. It is roughly the same effect that happens whenever you receive a gift yourself, and brain scans have shown that the pleasure received from giving something away is just as strong as when you receive that gift yourself.

Wired to Give

Wired to Give

We all know people who are more generous by nature, and others who tend to be more of a Scrooge. Scientists have sought to understand why this is the case. What they’ve found is that the size of your gifts is partly determined by the size of one part of your brain.

There is an area of the brain located just behind the top of your right ear known as the right temporoparietal junction, or TPJ. The TPJ plays a role in moral judgments and emotional processing, such as understanding how another person must be feeling or seeing things from their point of view.

A study from the University of Zurich found that people with a larger right TPJ were typically willing to spend more money on gifts or charitable donations. Brain activity in the TPJ also seemed to signal when people had reached their giving limit, or the maximum amount they felt comfortable giving. Though that’s not the only factor in how generous people are, it does seem that this small section of the brain plays a role in determining whether someone loves to give.

Selfishly Giving

Selfishly Generous

All of this talk about brain structure and the benefits of giving does raise the question of whether giving a gift is actually an unselfish act. If it truly is better to give than to receive, then aren’t we really motivated to give because it benefits us?

According to many psychologists, the answer is, surprisingly, “yes.” We give gifts because of what we get out of the transaction.

However, there is no reason why that should put a damper on your giving spirit. If anything, it should inspire you to give more, since it brings joy to both the recipient and the giver. So, go ahead and splurge on that Christmas gift, or send an unexpected bouquet to your loved one “just because.” If we all gave (and received) a little more, the world would be a happier place.

surveyed employees when they received a profit-sharing bonus. Those who spent more of the bonus on gifts for others reported an increase in happiness. Spending more money on things they wanted for themselves, though, had zero impact on how happy they felt.