I really enjoyed a piece I have just read in The Guardian online about the psychology of gift giving. It summarises fascinating research on a topic I was previously unaware had been properly investigated. It mentions, for example:
An NIMH study showing that givers show increased dopamine levels and increased activation in areas of the brain related to social interaction
A Canadian study showing that givers feel emotionally closer to the person they give to if they choose a gift that reveals something about themselves
A New Mexico study finding that, though not all gifts are equally well received, the only example of a gift being so poorly received that it risked changing the relationship was when the recipient didn’t say thank you.
I find the Canadian study by Lauren Human and Lara Aknin especially intriguing. If fits with my own experience that I am particularly pleased to find a present that is just right for the person it is intended for, and also just right for me as the giver. Such a present puts into a tangible form what it is that bonds us together.
There are many more questions about giving gifts that would repay research. For example, I suspect that it makes a big difference how much people actually want to give a gift. Gifts that are given because you want to probably have much more psychological impact than gifts that are given just because the social rules dictate that you should.
My sense is that too much giving is done just because it is required, not because people really want to. The commercial exploitation of the giving of presents makes that worse.
It would also be interesting to see how the effects of giving presents compares with simply having grateful thoughts. There is now a good deal of evidence on the beneficial effects of keeping a gratitude journal, summarised in Gratitude Works by Robert A. Emmons.
Giving presents also no doubt fosters gratitude, but it would be interesting to know whether and how its psychological benefits for the giver beat that of keeping a gratitude journal.