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Your brain on gift giving: Why it feels so darn good to get it right

Anyone who’s given that wonderfully thoughtful set of mini baking dishes to complete a kitchen or a personalized candle in a favorite scent knows the act of giving isn’t just pleasurable for the person getting the gift.

In fact, research across psychology and neuroscience shows that giving gifts can spread joy for both the giver and the recipient.

That doesn’t mean your gift has to be expensive or 100% perfect. But giving in the most beneficial way does require a degree of empathy and, of course, generosity, experts tell TODAY.com. Keeping that in mind, then, the most emotionally rewarding gift from one person to another may be surprisingly simple.

Generosity is part of what makes us human

It makes sense that this spirit of generosity would be beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., chief scientist for financial technology company Happy Money and a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, tells TODAY.com

The thinking goes that humans may not have fearsome claws, but “our ability to work together and help each other was absolutely essential to our survival as a species,” she explains.

As a result, Dunn’s research argues that “we have evolved to actually experience joy from giving to others.” In the same way that we get pleasure out of eating or having sex, a growing body of research suggests we also derive pleasure from giving to other people.

For instance, in a frequently cited 2008 study in Science, Dunn and her colleagues asked 16 participants about their spending habits and their happiness levels before and after they received a monetary bonus. Those who spent more on others than themselves generally reported being happier afterward, the results showed.

In the next experiment, 46 participants were given either $5 or $20 and told to spend it on other people or themselves that day. The results showed that people who were told to spend on others were significantly happier than those who spent the money on themselves, regardless of the dollar amount.

These results were replicated in a series of experiments with larger groups of participants and published in 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In one of the experiments, more than 700 participants were asked to purchase small gifts (chocolates and juice) for either themselves or sick children in a hospital. Those randomly chosen to purchase the gifts for others reported feeling happier in the moment than those who bought the gifts for themselves.

And in a 2022 review and large-scale analysis of previous studies, Dunn and other researchers found, again, that spending on others can promote emotional well-being for the giver under the right circumstances.

When do we get the most out of giving to others?

Of course, there are many reasons we might give to others or to charity — and not all of them leave us feeling warm and fuzzy. Based on her research, Lara Aknin, Ph.D., social psychologist and director of the Helping and Happiness Lab at Simon Fraser University, tells TODAY.com that there are three major factors that determine whether we get benefits from giving to others.

First, there’s the relational component to giving, or when we give a gift that reinforces our relationship to the recipient.

“That might seem obvious, but I think there are many ways we can give that tend to be quite distant and far removed,” says Aknin, who frequently collaborates with Dunn. For instance, you’re likely to get more out of taking someone out to dinner than giving them a gift card to a restaurant to enjoy on their own.

Second, we tend to feel better about our choices to give when we know the specific impact our gift has. That’s especially relevant to charitable giving, Aknin says.

In a study published in 2013 by researchers including Aknin and Dunn, 120 participants were asked to donate to one organization. For half of the participants, the organization was UNICEF (explained as a large charitable foundation) while the other half were asked to contribute to Spread the Net (a UNICEF-affiliated organization that provides $10 mosquito nets to help prevent malaria).

Their results showed that participants chose to give roughly the same amount of money to both organizations. But those who chose to donate to Spread the Net reported significantly higher levels of subjective well-being after their donation, meaning they tended to feel happier, more joyful and more positive overall.

“When people are able to give in a way where they really understand how their generosity is making a huge difference, that’s where we observed much more substantial benefits in terms of happiness,” Dunn explains.

When giving gifts around the holidays, she recommends not just frantically mailing out random gift cards, for example, because it will be impossible to know whether the recipients actually used or enjoyed them. Instead, opt for gifts you know will be useful and, if you can, take part in the gift yourself. “If you’re giving them theater tickets, go with them or do something where you can really see the impact that you’re having on them,” Dunn says.

If you feel obligated to give, especially something specific, you don’t get as much out of it. “You need to feel like you’ve chosen to give,” Aknin explains. Without the choice, “that can really rob people of the joy of giving,” Dunn adds. “They just feel like they’re giving because they have to, not because they want to or because they genuinely care.”

What’s happening in your brain when you give the perfect gift

Neuroscience research seems to confirm the idea that, in some circumstances, giving to others can be rewarding for the giver, as well.

For instance, in a 2015 study published in Neuron, researchers monitored 51 men while they chose how much money to give themselves and an anonymous recipient. Participants had to act quickly; they were given four seconds to make each choice and 180 choices to make, all while the researchers monitored their brain activity.

The results suggest that areas of the brain typically involved in empathy, social decision-making and reward all play a role in this complex process.

Study author Cendri Hutcherson, Ph.D., tells TODAY.com that her work and other research shows that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain activates when participants give to others. This area, typically involved in decision-making, can light up in different ways depending on whether the participant is more or less generous, Hutcherson says.

For people who tend to be more generous, the lower part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is better connected to reward-involved areas of the brain, sees more activation, she says.

In particular, it’s closely linked to the ventral striatum, one of “the usual players” in the brain’s reward system, says Hutcherson, who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. The ventral striatum also activates when we give to people we like and care about, but it’s generally less active when we’re giving to people we don’t know, she adds.

The temporoparietal junction of the brain — the part of the brain in which temporal and parietal lobes converge — also activated when participants in the study chose to act more generously. Although the field is still working to understand the role of this area in generous behavior, it seems to “first allow us to dissociate our own feelings from somebody else’s,” Hutcherson says. That’s a crucial process if we’re going to, say, get someone a gift that doesn’t align with our own tastes.

Other research has found that when an altruistic decision is more about preventing someone else’s pain or suffering rather than giving them something, another emotion-related brain area — the anterior insula — also comes into play.

Putting all of these findings together, you can think of giving to loved ones as a process that requires you to put yourself in their shoes and imagine them receiving your perfect gift, as well as the joy it will bring them.

“Essentially, we’re using the same machinery that we use when thinking about ourselves,” Hutcherson explains. “That simulation of how they would feel in response to getting this gift triggers the same kinds of reward processes that (you) would experience.”

Although you’re not getting the gift for yourself, the act of picking it out and giving it will likely bring its own rewards.

What about surprise gifts?

An element of surprise — when it goes well — often makes giving the right gift an even sweeter experience, Robb Rutledge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Yale, tells TODAY.com.

But giving a surprise gift certainly isn’t without risk.

“Choosing a gift for somebody is essentially like trying to read their mind,” Dunn says. That may not be too difficult if the other person is very similar to you or you’re very close to them, but it’s not unusual to miss the mark. And if someone you expect to know you well (maybe a close friend or family member) buys you something that isn’t a hit, “it could be a little off-putting,” Aknin says.

So, Dunn says, “the single best piece of advice you can possibly get in terms of how to give good gifts is to just ask people what they want.”

Still, you “don’t want to eliminate surprise completely,” Rutledge urges. He suggests a few middle-ground options to get the best of both worlds. First, there’s the old-fashioned list of acceptable gifts, like the one you might mail to Santa. Although the receiver may know, generally, what they’re getting, they won’t know which person is giving them which gift. Second, Rutledge advises offering a few umbrella topics or hobbies under which someone could easily find a suitable gift.

There’s less of a chance you’ll be disappointed, but there’s still an element of surprise. “You can still be excited. You can still be a little surprised, and so that feels like everyone wins,” Rutledge says.

The best gift doesn’t have to be material

One exceedingly underrated gift is much simpler and cheaper than you think: gratitude.

“Research shows that people absolutely love hearing expressions of gratitude. It makes people super happy,” Dunn explains. People also get the most out of giving when they take part in the receiving by experiencing the gift alongside the recipient, learning how valuable the gift was to them or even just watching them open it, she says.

So, if you’re having a hard time thinking of a gift for someone or you’re not in a position to spend a lot of money, “writing really lovely thank you notes to people is actually a great gift in itself,” Dunn adds.

“There’s a whole bunch of research that suggests that expressing gratitude is good for the person who’s saying it and the person who’s hearing it,” Aknin says. “The recipient is always very pleasantly surprised, and the person who expresses it always truly underestimates how much it means.”

And, yes, that’s also an argument in favor of sending a thank-you note after getting your own gifts. “It’s a nice thing to do for the gift-givers,” Rutledge says. “It’s kind of you’re giving a little gift back.”

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