The science behind generosity: Why gift giving makes us happy

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness obviously wasn’t spending their money in the right places. 

While constantly squandering your cash in an attempt to fill a deep-seated emotional void with more material ‘stuff’ probably isn’t the key to long-term happiness, spending money on others is a gift not only to the recipient but also to you as the person doing the giving. Engaging in acts of generosity is scientifically proven to make us happier.

Think about it.

What would make you happier - buying a pair of hideously expensive shoes that do nothing but give you blisters or seeing the look of surprise, elation or gratitude on someone’s face when you present them with a thoughtful gift? Would you feel better buying a whole cake and devouring it alone or sharing it with others?

Based on the anecdotal evidence it would appear that sharing is in fact caring and giving gifts can make us happier. But what exactly is the science behind generosity? 

christmas gifts for them


As a species, humans are fundamentally social and community-minded. We live together, eat together and work together. Part of this sociality is the act of taking care of each other. Sharing with each other, whether it’s food, knowledge or that brand new dress, is an example of how humanity is inherently generous. Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin you learnt about in year 11 biology) once commented, “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best”. Basically, he means that our generosity is part of the reason our species continues to grow and thrive. If we were predominantly selfish, our refusal to share with each other means we probably would have gone extinct a long time ago. 

GIVING PRODUCES ENDORPHINS (and endorphins make us happy):

Neurologists suggest that our brains are wired to derive pleasure from giving. Studies have actually found quantitative evidence that we feel a greater sense of happiness when spending money on others as opposed to when we spend the money on ourselves. The look on the recipient’s face when they open their gift provides a psychological lift to other person and triggers the release endorphins into their brain, producing the same euphoric feelings of pleasure and joy we can experience after a tough workout or when we’re falling in love. 


Studies have proposed that a thoughtful and well-timed gift can strengthen and develop your connection with another person. A gift that carries meaning between two people (yes, it is the thought that counts) can be a non-verbal way for one person to express their feelings and appreciation towards the gift’s recipient. For instance, you’ve had a terrible day at work so your significant other buys you a beautiful bouquet of your favourite flowers. Chances are this small act of generosity would both lift your spirits and leave you well assured that your partner is definitely a keeper.

Some people might grumble that they don’t like giving gifts. They generally seem to think that other people are too difficult to shop for or it’s just too much work, it’s too expensive or too much pressure. But really, it’s not that hard. A small thoughtful gift can be priceless. Gifts don’t make us happy because they were lavish grand gestures or excessively expensive, they make us happy because they allow us to connect with someone we care about.