Christmas presents

It Really Is the Thought That Counts

With the holidays upon us, it's worth remembering that the act of giving to others is, in and of itself, the greatest gift of all.


The holiday season is fast approaching, and with it, the daunting task of buying gifts. It seems like every year the list grows, oftentimes faster than your paycheck.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Lara Aknin, assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, has been studying money, happiness and altruism for over eight years and has found that giving leads to greater happiness than spending money on yourself.


A survey of over 600 Americans showed that personal spending had no impact on happiness, but spending money on others, whether as gifts or charitable donations, was associated with significantly increased happiness levels.

To establish causation, participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend on themselves or others and reported higher happiness when they spent the money on others, regardless of amount. Increased happiness caused by giving a gift was also present in children, and even in people who reported not having enough money to buy food for themselves or their families in the preceding year.

Surprisingly, most people predict exactly the opposite: we tend to think we will be happier spending more money and spending it on ourselves. Maybe commercialized holidays like Christmas aren’t so bad, prompting us to give gifts we normally might not give and ultimately boosting our happiness.

But give meaningfully

But like most things, this observation comes with a few caveats. Giving gifts to anyone and everyone with no thought is probably not going to make you happy.

“Emotional benefits are most likely to materialize when giving promotes a sense of social connection, when acts are freely chosen, and when givers see that they’ve had a big impact,” says Aknin.

For example, study participants were happy to buy their friends a coffee, but only if they drank the coffee together.

So what should you do with that hard-earned cash this holiday season?

“Try to make giving personal, impactful, and treat it as an opportunity to connect with others.”

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.