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Central California Life Magazine

The psychology of gift giving

Feb 14, 2016 03:49PM ● By Kevin


ove, friendship, celebration, hospitality, generosity, and even manipulation: those are all reasons why people have been giving gifts to each other since the beginning of human history. Gift-giving is of obvious benefit to the recipient. But what about the giver? 

Psychologists have long studied the beneficial effects of bestowing gifts on others. We have so many opportunities for exchanging gifts –Christmas, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries, weddings or even “just because.” Exchanging gifts is a prominent–and complex–part of our culture. With the arrival of functional brain imaging, scientists have now seen that the act of giving a gift activates the reward center of our brains.

Gifts are loaded with meaning and add a unique dynamic to relationships. There are several aspects of gift-giving that we subconsciously acknowledge, but rarely verbalize. A certain amount of time is spent in pursuit of the gift, there is usually a financial investment, and there is always symbolism, as reflected in the reasons that began this discussion.

Often, it is the giver who actually psychologically benefits most from the experience. Givers feel caring, consideration and connection to the recipient; they also can express emotions via gift-giving when they may struggle to show emotions in other ways. Especially when the gift is given for less than altruistic reasons, there is gain derived on behalf of the giver, whether to assuage guilt (especially when giving from afar), garner favor, influence a decision or hope for reciprocity.

Gift-giving feels good internally and taps into how we want to connect with that individual. The ability and ease of shopping online makes the process of seeking out just the right gift ever so much simpler. Let’s look at an analogy to gift-giving by looking at a baseball bat. A baseball bat is successfully used for recreation a vast majority of the time, but unfortunately, there are occasions when it causes injury.

Likewise, there are occasionally negative consequences in gift-giving, such as resentment. If the gift doesn’t meet the expectations of the recipient, then they can feel undervalued or that the gift expresses more feelings than expected. Sometimes the hunt for the perfect gift can also cause a lot of stress.

No amount of money can buy more than you have to give.

There are ways to acknowledge others without having to purchase something. Much has been written about alternatives to traditional gift-giving. In fact, often these alternatives allow us to focus more on the actual meaning of the holiday or special occasion. The best way to change your gift-giving habits is to start slowly. You can’t change your traditions all at once, but you can try one or two ideas at a time. Here are some alternatives:

• Personal cards and photos tell them that you are important in that person’s life.

• Gatherings or parties are a good way to share together without exchanging gifts. 

• Donate in their name to the global nonprofit Heifer International, which brings livestock and agriculture to impoverished areas of the world.

• Adopt a family through your church. 

• Focus on experiences such as making memories with loved ones.

• Adopt an animal at the zoo on behalf of the recipient.

• A charity gift card, where the recipient chooses the charity.

• Exchange consumables such as cookies rather than gifts.

• Divert funds traditionally spent on gift purchases in order to travel to be with loved ones.

• Chronicle your family history by assembling photographs, letters and important documents.

• Put together a photo album or book of family recipes. 

• Give a gift of music or sports lessons.

• Gift certificates that offer babysitting, a home-cooked meal or a monthly lunch date.

• Donate to a charity in the name of a loved one.

• Give away one of your favorite things.

• Give books on tape.

• Give handmade gifts.

• Make a family calendar with photos, birthdays and other special occasions.

The common denominator here is the giving for your time, your energy, and your emotion. Quality time spent on those that you care about is the most priceless thing I am aware of on Earth.

No amount of money can buy more than you have to give. Take inventory of your precious memories. How many are because of “stuff”? Any? Remember, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take in the moment, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

About the Author

During his 25 years of practicing in the Central Valley, Dr. Bradley T. Wajda (aka “Dr. Brad”) has amassed extensive experience in adult and child psychiatry, as well as comprehensive substance abuse treatment. Catch “Dr. Brad” at You can also read more from “Dr. Brad” at

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Happy Reading,

Karen Maroot