The Art – and the Science – of Great Gift Giving

May 05, 2021
by Lynne Myers
The Art – and the Science – of Great Gift Giving

The Art – and the Science – of Great Gift Giving


We've all been there, searching for that perfect gift for someone we love but with no idea of what to get them. Whether it's a small token of appreciation on Father's Day, a birthday present for a new girlfriend, or something special for an old friend who's about to tie the knot, sometimes the art of gift giving seems more like a mystery. But is it all just commercialism gone mad or do presents have the power to affect our relationships? And if we do make the effort, do price tags matter or is it truly the thought that counts?


Giving is good for us

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought up hearing the old adage of ‘it’s better to give than to receive’, and according to science, it’s absolutely true. In a study published by Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer, the psychology researchers found that the pleasure of giving lasts longer than the pleasure of getting. They conducted two small experiments, one involved giving participants $5 every day for five days, and the other involved 502 participants donating a small amount of money to charity after playing word puzzle games. O’Brien and Kassirer recorded the happiness levels felt by each participant and identified that while the joy of receiving money quickly wore off, the feel-good factor of giving continued to make the participants happy. In other words, we get used to receiving, like eating the same food every day, but giving is a more sustainable source of happiness.


Gifts in romantic relationships

So now that we’ve established that giving makes us feel good, how does it affect our relationships with other people? Research by psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Canada showed that bad gifts can adversely affect relationships between romantic partners as it can be perceived as a sign of having nothing in common or not understanding the other person. The study also recorded that participants’ perception of the relationship’s future was negatively impacted by a poor gift. 


Love really doesn’t cost a thing

With that bombshell, should we just throw all our money at the next social occasion? Thankfully, Jennifer Lopez was right. Across three studies, Francis Flynn and Gabrielle Adams at Stanford University in the US found that more expensive gifts don't equate to greater levels of appreciation from the receiver, despite what the giver might expect.


The thought doesn’t count as much as you’d think

If it’s not about money then you might think it’s better to surprise your loved one with something thoughtful. Well, according to a study by Yan Zhang and Nicholas Epley, it’s not the thought that counts. In their research, the pair dispelled this widely accepted idea as ‘exaggerated’ for the receiver in gift exchanges. Even more surprisingly, a paper authored by Francesca Gino and Francis Flynn states that the best present is one that someone asks for. They conducted five studies and each one showed that receivers were more appreciative of gifts they had explicitly asked for than ones they had not. However, the person handing over the present held a different opinion, perceiving a ‘surprise’ gift as superior. 

All the scientific research in the world might not help you pick out the exact gift for a special occasion, but it does tell us not to worry about the price tag and that a generous approach to life will make us happier in the long run. And if you’re still struggling, just ask!



Click here to see some gift options for the special people in your life.