Why does giving Christmas presents make people feel happy year after year? Researchers have suggested that giving to others is an exception from the hedonic adaptation psychological phenomenon.
Hedonic adaptation is a psychological phenomenon, which refers to the fact that the happiness we feel after a particular event or activity diminishes each time we experience that event. However, this does not explain why giving to others, for example giving Christmas presents year after year, does not make us less happy after doing it multiple times.
In two studies, psychology researchers Ed O’Brien (University of Chicago Booth School of Business) and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management) found that the happiness of participants, or declined much slower, if they repeatedly gave gifts to others versus repeatedly receiving the same gifts themselves.
Consumption and hedonic adaptation
O’Brien explains: “If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it.”
Further analyses ruled out some potential alternative explanations. For example, the possibility that the participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote a higher level of happiness.
O’Brien adds: “We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them. None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”
In terms of their current research, O’Brien commented:”Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time.”