In the midst of the holiday shopping rush, Tara Parker-Pope has a piece in The New York Times this week that discusses the psychology of giving. Parker-Pope outlines the personal and social benefits of gift giving, even touching on possible evolutionary explanations for why we give gifts, and why giving actually carries strong psychological rewards to the gift givers themselves.
Among the studies Parker-Pope cites is one that examined pet owners, conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the context of gift giving, the thing that makes pet owners so interesting is that many of them dote on their cat or dog with no expectation that they'll receive a gift in return. Sure enough, the VCU researchers found that when pet owners pampered their pets, "it stemmed from a desire to make pets happy and offer gifts that would improve a pet's comfort and care."
Because pets can't reciprocate, this kind of gift giving reinforces the idea that generosity carries its own rewards. We're nice to others not because we simply hope it'll pay off for us down the line, but because we may be hard-wired to enjoy making other people feel good. Commenting on her findings, one of the authors of the VCU study, Tracy Ryan, told Parker-Pope, "It shows that a lot of the pleasure is in the giving, knowing you've taken care of someone."
I'd add that research from neuroscience corroborates the kinds of findings Parker-Pope discusses in her article. For example, research by James Rilling at Emory University has found that when people share money with others, with no expectation of a return on their gift, the same regions of their brain light up as those associated with pleasure and personal gratification. More recent research has found this to be true even when the giving was involuntary–i.e., people in an experiment were given money, then told it was being taxed and distributed to others.
For more on ways to foster happiness during the holidays, beyond giving gifts, check out the interview with my Greater Good Science Center colleague Christine Carter on CNN International next week!