The joy of giving
As a child, Christmas is all about the euphoria of tearing into a mountain of presents with your name on – unwrapping the latest this and the newest that before immediately tearing the boxes open and starting to play. Yet it seems to be a sign of getting older that, each year, Christmas becomes less and less about all of that stuff.
In adulthood, there's something really joyful about taking the time to pick out the perfect, most meaningful gift for each of your loved ones. From writing the list to wrapping each present with bows and ribbons – or just smothering them in sticky tape and hoping for the best! – that whole giving process is actually pretty special.
And science says what many of us already know: giving presents actually does make us happier. According to Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, their research consistently found that giving increases happiness levels more than receiving.
This explains how we bring ourselves to trudge endlessly along cold high streets, dodging and weaving in and out of shops with their heating turned up way too high. Why else, if not for the imagination of your loved one's face lighting up on Christmas morning because you've absolutely nailed this year's present?
For all it's a stressful, expensive time of year, for most of us it's also the perfect excuse for some good, old-fashioned quality time with friends, family, and all those we love the most. And what better way to catch up, and show how much you care, than through thoughtful gifts, shared feasts, and silly games?
When we give a present to someone we care about, we get to experience the pleasure of making them happy, of making a difference to their life even in a very small way – whether it's making them laugh with a novelty gift that's right up their street, or bringing tears to their eyes with something soppy.
And the joy isn't limited to treating our loved ones. A 2006 study at the National Institutes of Health found that giving to charity activates areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust – giving us that 'warm glow' that's not just caused by too much mulled wine.
As well as the gooey feeling of doing something nice for others, giving also helps us to build better, stronger relationships. Besides making us feel good about ourselves in the moment, exchanging gifts is part of an important social contract, which can in itself be a great source of happiness.
Put simply, the act of giving presents or charitable donations – at Christmas and at any other time of the year – seems to activate a region of the brain that deals with social attachment. When we give to others our brains release oxytocin (AKA the 'love hormone'), which is also produced during bonding activities like sex, cuddling, childbirth, breastfeeding, and playing with your dog.
Maybe that's why the thought is so much more significant than the cost or the flashiness of the present. A beautifully personalised, hand-crafted gift gives both the giver and the recipient so much more happiness because of what it says about their relationship, compared to meaningless tat bought in a shopping centre ten minutes before closing time on Christmas Eve.
When you give with love, giving really is the most joyful thing about Christmas.