Friday, November 21, 2008

'Tis the Season

Christmas season is almost upon us - and if you're to believe the mall displays, it has been since mid October. With it comes office parties, rum-laced egg nog (marrow rum?) and gift exchanges. And with family gift exchanges, often come Santa 'wish lists'.

The Christmas list remains something of a puzzle to me. Sure it removes much of the stress of gift giving (What should I buy? Will they like it? etc.) but it seems to fly in the face of the conventional "It's the thought that counts" wisdom, since they're meant to take thought out of the equation.

But conventional wisdom is often wrong and a more fitting aphorism would be "It's the act that counts". And in fact, the act may be as (or more?) important for the giver as the receiver. Families that cut back on gift giving by doing a "Secret Santa" type exchange may be doing themselves a disservice, the New York Times reports:
But while it’s reasonable to cut back on spending during the holidays, psychologists say that banning the gift exchange with loved ones is not the best solution. People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.
Of course retailers are probably thrilled with that idea. Gift giving is a social interaction and by not participating either by not giving or declining gifts you miss out on social cues and opportunities to strengthen bonds
“[Not participating in gift exchange] doesn’t do a service to the relationship,” said Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology professor. “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.”
Psychology Today explains further. Giving a gift forces the giver to reflect on the relationship (at least subconsciously). It focuses the giver on who their important relationships are, and the nature of those connections (the nature of the gift, the effort willing to be made, etc.) and answering these questions is satisfying. And gift giving reinforces itself through these feelings in a sort of feedback loop:
We usually think that the more we care about someone, the more we want to give to them. This is probably true. But what is even more interesting is that the more we give, the more we come to care about the person to whom we are giving. We feel alive in the activity. And it is the receiver who has provided the opportunity for us to feel this good, so we feel loving in return. Moreover, as social psychologist Daryl Bern, Ph.D., has taught us, we deduce our attitudes from our behavior. "I must really care or else why would I have given such a meaningful gift?"
A recent paper in Science supports the idea that giving is good for the giver. The authors show, through both survey and field study, that spending money on others is predictive of happiness. While one might think that happier people are more prone to giving (which may be true), the authors also showed that people randomly assigned to give to others reported more happiness compared to those told to spend on themselves.

So on that count the old wives may have got it right: It is better to give than to receive.