Here's Why Exchanging Gifts Feels So Good, According to Science

3 min read
Wondering why giving gifts feels even better than receiving them? Let's dig into the science of giving—and how it impacts your mood for the better.
Wondering why giving gifts feels even better than receiving them? Let's dig into the science of giving—and how it impacts your mood for the better.

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Weird sweaters from your great aunt aside, most of us can probably agree that exchanging gifts is one of the best parts of this festive season. And if you’ve ever noticed that it’s even more fun to watch someone open your thoughtfully-selected gift than receive one yourself, you’re not alone: Research suggests that there’s something about giving to others that has a lasting effect on our brains.

So, what’s behind that warm, fuzzy feeling? Let’s take a closer look.

Giving a thoughtful gift may trigger the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains.

Think about it this way: As humans, we’re wired for social interaction—connecting with other people may stimulate the reward system in our brain. To get even more specific, scientists have found that when we hang out with our friends or family, these interactions may trigger the release of oxytocin—aptly named the “love hormone,” it’s a chemical thought to play a role in the way we bond with others. (1,2)*

Gift-giving is a social exchange, so it makes sense that it lights up these particular reward systems—especially when it’s with people we really care about. But a 2011 study takes this train of thought a step further: When participants were dosed with oxytocin, they were actually inclined to give more than people who weren’t, even when it was to a recipient they didn’t know personally, like a charity. So while scientists have long since associated oxytocin with a sense of belonging, these researchers were able to show that it might ultimately make us more generous, too. (3)*

The afterglow of giving a gift lasts longer than receiving one.

That’s according to a study from researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, published in Psychological Science earlier this year. While there’s no denying the joy we feel when we get a really great gift, with time, that excitement tends to fade—especially if we get the same kinds of gifts every year. This is a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation, and it applies to far more than gift-giving: In other words, when we experience the same indulgence over and over again, it starts to lose its cachet. (4)*

But the researchers on this study identified an exception to this rule—and that’s when we give to others. The 96 participants were given $5 every day for 5 days. Some of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves, and others were instructed to spend it on others—giving it to charity, for example, or dropping it in a tip jar. At the end of each day, the participants were instructed to report their feelings on the experience and their overall happiness.*

Interestingly, the researchers saw a gradual decline in the self-reported happiness of the group that received the $5. But the joy for the group that gave their money away remained consistent throughout the week. A second experiment, in which participants in a word puzzle game were instructed to either keep their cash winnings or give it away, showed a similar result: Those who kept their money saw a sharper decline in happiness than those who donated it to charity. (4)*

A 2008 study out of the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School came to a similar conclusion. After randomly assigning a group of people to spend a designated amount of cash on either themselves or others, the second group—the “giving” group—reported higher happiness. (5)*

The bottom line

When you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable that we get so much pleasure from the act of giving. Basically, we’re wired for generosity–and that’s something to keep in mind even as we move beyond the holiday season.


  1. Krach, S., Paulus, F. M., Bodden, M., & Kircher, T. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 4, 22. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
  2. Algoe, S. B., Kurtz, L. E., & Grewen, K. (2017). …Perceptions of Romantic Partners’ Bonding Behavior. Psychological Science, 28(12), 1763–1772. doi: 10.1177/0956797617716922
  3. Barraza, J. A., Mccullough, M. E., Ahmadi, S., & Zak, P. J. (2011). Oxytocin…. Hormones and Behavior, 60(2), 148–151. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.04.008
  4. The joy of giving lasts longer than the joy of getting. (2018, December 20). Retrieved from Science Daily
  5. University of British Columbia. (2008, March 21). Money Buys Happiness When You Spend On Others, Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 3, 2019 from Science Daily


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