Gifts activate areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect.
The Christmas season is approaching and with it the search for the perfect gifts for family and friends. But what exactly happens in your brain when you give a gift? And is the old adage “it’s better to give than take” true?
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It turns out that giving gifts, especially to someone we have a close relationship with, activates important reward pathways in our brain as long as we don’t let stress take away our enjoyment. Simon-Thomas, PhD, scientific director of the Greater Good Science Center, a research center at the University of California, Berkeley that explores the roots of compassion, happiness, and altruism.
Several studies conducted over the past decade have shown that spending money on someone else increases happiness. Indeed, when we’re generous—whether donating money to charity or gifting a loved one something they really want for the holidays—there’s more interaction between the parts of the brain involved in processing social information and pleasure have to do. For example, in a study by researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, researchers donated $100 to 50 people and asked half of them to spend it on themselves and the other half to spend it on someone else over the next four weeks.
They then performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity associated with generosity and pleasure during a social activity. They found that those who spent money on other people had more generous and honest interactions with others and reported higher levels of happiness at the end of the experiment.
Is it really better to give than to receive?
Decades of gift-giving science suggest that giving and receiving may be quite similar in terms of what’s going on in the brain, Simon-Thomas said.
“If you get a gift from someone very important to you, and you really like what they gave you, it will result in a very similar oxytocin-laden reward response,” he said.
Put it differently
Giving can also seen as another item on the to-do list during a busy time that can take a lot of the fun out of giving, said Simon-Thomas.
“When you’re really stressed, beyond your ability to anticipate or savor the experience, then dopamine and oxytocin aren’t released in your brain,” he said.”You’re probably stressed out all the time.”
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