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Acts of generosity — like giving gifts — brings happiness, research shows

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If, like me, you have still got people you have not accounted for on your holiday shopping list, you may be feeling the pinch. Buying, wrapping and schlepping gifts takes time. So is all that effort worth it? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on what researchers who've studied gifting have concluded.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The idea that it's better to give than to receive goes way back, and the tradition of gift-giving is ancient. But sometimes the time and effort it takes feels like a lot, says psychologist Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.

MICHAEL NORTON: People get very, very stressed about getting all the gifts in time. Is it the right gift? You know, what does this person really want? Do I have time?

AUBREY: I always imagine strolling through quaint shops as carolers sing, spotting something unique for everyone on my list. But the reality is far more tedious, more like scrolling online and just hoping something can be delivered by next week. So when the holidays feel more frenzied than festive, it's easy to question whether it's all worth it. But Norton assures me that science shows giving is good for us.

NORTON: We can show in our research that that act of giving actually does improve your happiness.

AUBREY: He and his collaborators have studied the effects of giving, going back to a study published in 2008. In one experiment that included about 700 people, they randomly assigned participants to make either a purchase for themselves or for somebody else. Afterwards, the participants reported how happy they felt. Turns out giving to others led to a significant boost.

NORTON: If you take $5 out of your pocket today, the science really does show that spending that $5 on yourself doesn't do much for you. But spending that $5 on somebody else is more likely to increase your happiness.

AUBREY: Imagine you spot a scarf. It's a cold day. You think, ah, I might like that for myself, but you already have scarves. So do you really need one more? The decision to gift that scarf to somebody else could be the better play.

NORTON: Maybe they don't exactly need the scarf either, but what an act of giving you've engaged in. You've showed them that they're important to you, and it's a very different act. It's the same exact object. It's just a scarf. But it can either be a throwaway object or something that cements a relationship between two people.

AUBREY: And the magical thing about giving is that when we're generous, we're more likely to receive because humans tend to unconsciously imitate other people's acts of giving, says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, this is one of the really striking discoveries in this new science of giving or kindness, which is it's contagious, right? So if I am given something by somebody else, I will then give more to other people in subsequent interactions.

AUBREY: Reciprocity is a foundation of good relationships. And when we surround ourselves with generous people, we tend to feel the same. And when it comes to what to give, Keltner says it can be exhausting to buy. So why not gift the people on your list with an experience? Buy them a park pass or theater tickets or invite them out to dinner with you.

KELTNER: Because when we give experiences to people, they're, almost by definition, more personalized. They're reflective of our relationship to them. We give a visit to a museum to a friend who loves art. We, you know, take somebody out camping. We build in the fabric of our relationship to gift-giving and make it more special.

AUBREY: And one more thing - it's always nice to be present when someone receives the gift you're giving. The research shows this can give an extra lift - to see the gratitude or someone's face light up in thanks. That's the spirit of the season.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AUDIBLES AND SAVANNAH BLEU SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.