Why does gifting bring us so much joy?

By Lara Green,
updated on Apr 16, 2024

Why does gifting bring us so much joy?

Beyond an opportunity to unlock deep bliss, gifting releases a surge of emotions that contribute to our wellbeing, self-esteem, and sense of purpose

One of the most memorable gifts I’ve received is a handmade photo book from my school friends. Aptly titled This is Your Life, it documented our years together from child to adulthood, recalling some of our most treasured memories. Bound in a hardback cover, it still sits on my shelf now, begging to be pulled out and pored over when I’m chasing a little sentimental reflection.

It’s special to me because it was made with intention. And I have it on good authority that my friends had an absolute blast compiling it – reliving memories as they sourced and placed the images, constructed the (often hilarious) captions, and got creative with the design.

I liken it to how Amelié Poulain must have felt when she finds the childhood treasure belonging to the former occupant of her apartment, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie, Amelié. Returning the memorabilia to its rightful owner – and witnessing his subsequent joy and newfound perspective – she commits herself to others, delivering acts of kindness that transform the lives of the people around her. But in the act of giving, it’s Amelié who transforms the most.

The message here is that, while it’s amazing to be the lucky recipient of a gift, it’s as the giver of those gifts – the crafter of the gesture – where the sky-high joy can be found.

The psychology of gifting

Gifting is a tradition engrained in many cultures, and beneath its surface lies some fascinating psychological benefits. An expression of love and gratitude, it acknowledges the significance of our relationships, shifting us away from ego, and rewards us with a wonderful ‘warm glow’.

Developed by American economist James Andreoni, warm-glow giving’ is a theory that explores the emotional reward of giving to others. His study, published in The Economic Journal in 1990, places us into two categories: ‘impurely altruistic’, where we maintain both altruistic and egoistic motivations for giving that reward us for the contributions we make; or ‘pure altruists’, who are motivated solely by the desire to give.

A 2019 study by The University of Sussex, published in NeuroImage, further explores the neural processes associated with altruistic and strategic giving, concluding that – irrespective of why we give – both types are destined to benefit others, and are consistently rewarding to the giver, triggering the ‘helpers high’ that naturally follows an act of kindness.

It’s believed that both giving and receiving gifts activates the core areas of our brain associated with reward and pleasure, stimulating the neurotransmitter dopamine. When we give, we bring happiness to ourselves and others, experiencing what’s often referred to in psychological circles as ‘vicarious reward’. Through witnessing something positive happening to another person, we vicariously experience that person’s pleasure, too. It’s a wonderful way to lean into compassion, with long-lasting benefits for both gift-giver and recipient.

Re-framing the act of giving

When we think of a gift, we often picture a box wrapped in beautiful paper with a bow around it. And while these types of gifts are wonderful – especially if it’s something we need or desire – there is so much more to gifting than the simple sharing of objects.

Pablo Picasso reportedly once said: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Here, gifting is viewed through the lens of shared experience. The artist teaching watercolour, the baker sharing a secret recipe, the pianist playing a beautifully composed piece and then walking his protégées through the score. These shared skills are tangible symbols of care that enhance our human connection, lifting us emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Then, there are activities and experiences, such as scenic hikes, homemade picnics, Ikebana-style flower arranging, and hygge nights in. All of these provide the gift of time together, as well as deepening connections through shared experience.

Perhaps the greatest gift of all, though, is the capacity to use our voice and actions to enrich others’ lives. Complimenting a stranger, telling a friend how much they mean to you, helping somebody who is struggling. These words and actions carry so much value, and it’s perhaps here, in this space and via these gestures, where the most authentic ‘warm glow’ can be found.

So, where will you start? What will you say and do today? Who will the lucky recipient be? Try these eight creative gift ideas and see how they enhance self-worth, along with those all-important human connections.


8 creative gift ideas

Prescribe an adventure

From day trips to honing skills, hobbies, and climbing mountains, planning adventures shows you have actively listened to what your friend wants in life, and is an emotionally uplifting way to deepen your connection through shared experience.

Write a heartfelt note

In a world where WhatsApp reigns supreme, a handwritten note carries real value. What have they taught you? What qualities make them unique? Putting pen to paper provides time to reflect on what you want to say, and is a beautiful way to deepen your bond.

The gift of time

Carving out time for a catch up – even if it’s just an hour – can provide a valuable emotional boost. Head to a café or meet in the park for a quick life catch-up.

Bake bread

If food could dish out hugs, bread would almost certainly be at the front of the queue! Try your hand at a country boule, show your skills with a clever crust, or get a starter established and go for sourdough. For gluten-free friends, there are tons of recipes online.

Make a preserve or pickle

Jams, chutneys, and pickles equal a direct route to the heart of foodie friends. It’s a good idea to work with what’s in season for the ultimate flavour experience, buying the ingredients locally, and making it in batches so you can create a few jars at once.

Create a bespoke box of memories

Housing old letters, postcards, photos, and memorabilia in a box can provide a wonderful trip down memory lane. Scour charity shops for delightful boxes, and drop the finished package on your friend’s doorstep.

Grow to gift

Whether it’s herbs and greens grown on your windowsill, or a posy made from wildflowers in the garden, homegrown gifts are light on your carbon footprint, but big on purpose and satisfaction.

Hobby in a tin

Got a friend who loves to crochet, make clothes, or bake? Collating objects that represent their hobby says you believe in their passion as much as they do, and are fully invested in it as a mindful form of therapy for them.

By Lara Green

Lara Green is a writer, recipe creator and sourdough bread teacher. Follow her on Instagram @_fromthegreenkitchen.

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