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Giving gifts boosts happiness, research shows. So why do we feel frazzled?

Studies show when people are given something they are more likely to give back.
Studies show when people are given something they are more likely to give back.

I grew up hearing that it is better to give than to receive, and the older I get, the more I aim to take this message to heart. Nonetheless, here I am, in the midst of the holiday season stressed out about gifts I have not yet purchased.

When I picture the holidays, I imagine strolling through the small shops in my town, as carolers sing, spotting a unique gift for everyone on my list, but the reality is far more tedious.

Short on time, I madly scroll online to find something fast. Even as I hit purchase, I'm second-guessing the slippers for mom. Will dad like the infrared blanket, I wonder.

How did gift buying become an emotionally fraught chore? For a moment, it's easy to question if it's worth it.

But, hang on, science tells me that giving makes us feel good – right?

"The act of giving actually does improve your happiness," says researcher Michael Norton, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Business School. He and his collaborators have published several studieson the effects of giving.

In one experiment that included about 700 people, the researchers randomly assigned participants to make either a purchase for themselves, or for a stranger. Afterwards, the participants reported how happy they felt. Turns out, giving to others led to a significant happiness boost, whereas spending on oneself didn't move the needle.

"If you take $5 out of your pocket today, the science really does show that spending $5 on yourself doesn't do much for you," Norton says. "But spending that $5 on somebody else is more likely to increase your happiness."

Take a scarf. If you buy one for yourself, it's just another thing you don't necessarily need. But if you buy a scarf for someone else, "you've shown them that they're important to you," Norton says. Either way, it's just a scarf. " But it can either be a throwaway object or something that cements a relationship between two people," he says.

So, there's empirical evidence that generosity promotes happiness, but alas, the process of shopping, wrapping and schlepping gifts can be tiresome – or even exasperating given all of our day-to-day demands and other holiday stressors. And often, these tasks fall to the busiest person in the family – moms, anyone?

So, if you want to feel the warm glow of gift giving, and avoid the angst, here are some tips to steer you towards a festive season, free from frenzy.

1. Be intentional

Gift giving is a habit that can get better with practice, so start early in the year, and if something you spot in July reminds you of a person, buy it then. "Giving does require us to say, hold on, I should stop focusing on myself," Norton says. "The more habitually we can do that, the less likely it is that, come the holiday, we're scrambling at the last minute," he says.

2. Create ritual around shopping and wrapping

My uncle Bob did his holiday shopping in one day. He and his wife took the bus downtown to the department stores, back in the day when piano players entertained shoppers. As I recall, he always gave the best gifts, beautifully wrapped in colorful paper and proper bows. Otherwise, he wasn't much of a spender, but on that day he went all out and created wonderful memories. Similarly, a group of my friends has gathered for the past 20 years for our That's A Wrap party the week before Christmas. I look forward to this tradition. It's a way to catch up, and I love the camaraderie and not wrapping alone.

3. Experiences make great gifts

If you're stressed about giving just the right thing, remember it's the gesture that counts more than the thing itself. "Gift giving is ancient," says Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-director of the Greater Good Science Center. "There's just this deep, inherent delight," that comes with receiving the gratitude from a person we've gifted, he says. His suggestion: in lieu of material gifts, try gifting someone a night out, a park pass, show tickets or a museum membership. ""When we give experiences to people, they're almost by definition more personalized. They're reflective of our relationship to them, " Keltner says. Donations to charities are a popular alternative, too, which can be just as meaningful.

4. Be present for the receiving

Though a person's reaction to a gift shouldn't matter, it's fun to share in the experience. "What we see in our research is actually that we do prefer that we see the other person get it," Norton says. If you're separated, you could try Facetiming during an unwrapping. "We do like this little bit of kind of clapping at the end of the giving that makes us feel a little bit happier about the giving," Norton says. It's nice when giving can feel magical.

5. Remember the why behind your giving

If you're annoyed by the holiday hustle, remind yourself that this is an opportunity to show love, gratitude and generosity to the most important people in your life. "Tapping into our values can be stress reducing and prosocial acts are actually good for our health," says stress researcher Elissa Epelof the University of California, San Francisco.

6. Take a mindfulness minute

It's easy to get steeped in materialism and obsess about costs, Epel says. So, take a short break from your holiday to-do list and ground yourself in nature. "Immerse your senses in the sights and sounds of nature or the sky, and slow your breathing," Epel recommends. Try breathing in for 4, and out for 6, a shortcut to reducing holiday stress! There's more tips in her book The Stress Prescription.

And Keltner says one of the most striking discoveries of this new "science of kindness," is that giving is contagious. " We tend to unconsciously imitate other people's acts of giving," he says. Studies show when people are given something they are more likely to give back. Reciprocity is a foundation of good relationships and when we surround ourselves with generous people, we tend to feel the same.

Feeling that spirit of giving and the connectedness it can bring – now that's what the holidays are all about.

Tell us how you manage to move through your holiday to-do list and slow down enough to enjoy the season of giving. You can reach us at shots@npr.org

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.