The Psychology of Gift-Giving – How Thoughtful Gifts Impact Mental Health

Written by: Thrishala Gunathunga

Gift giving becomes a major topic in many cultures as the Christmas season approaches. But did you know that giving gifts is much more than just a chance to enjoy the holiday aesthetics and gatherings? This is because giving gifts plays a significant role in strengthening social bonds and contributing to the overall well-being of individuals.

In this article, we will look into the psychology of gift-giving, exploring how it impacts mental health, especially when thoughtful gifts are exchanged.

What goes on in the brain when we give gifts?

According to positive psychology, acts of kindness, such as gift-giving, add to a person’s sense of well-being because it causes the brain to release dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, three neurotransmitters commonly referred to as “feel-good” hormones. Simply speaking, these neurotransmitters are linked to feelings of pleasure, social connection, and greater happiness. As a result, prosocial behaviours such as giving gifts can produce a positive feedback loop that benefits both the giver and the recipient.

The American Psychological Association (APA) points out a study conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, in which 50 participants were given $100. Half of the participants were asked to spend it on themselves, whereas the other half were asked to spend it on someone else over the following four weeks. Results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that individuals who spent money on others had more compassionate and fair relationships with others and reported higher levels of enjoyment following their experiment!

How can gift-giving impact people’s mental health?

You know now what happens in the brain when you give gifts, but what impact can it have on people’s mental health? Gifts may have positive and negative impacts on mental health, as shown below, depending on a variety of circumstances such as the type of present, the giver-recipient relationship, and the recipient’s specific preferences.

Positive Impact on Mental Health

·   Thoughtful and meaningful gifts can bring delight and happiness to the recipient as it triggers positive emotions, leading to an improved state of mind and overall sense of well-being.

·   Receiving a gift can help people feel valued, respected, and connected to others. It fosters social relationships and maintains a sense of belonging.

·   Knowing that someone took the time to select a gift customised to the recipient’s likes and interests can improve self-esteem.

·   Giving thoughtful presents can also reduce stress and anxiety by giving an enjoyable surprise or distraction, as well as by releasing the feel-good hormones dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

Negative Impact on Mental Health

·   In certain situations, the anticipation of getting a gift, particularly around important events such as birthdays or holidays, can cause tension and anxiety.

·   When people compare the worth or thoughtfulness of gifts they receive with those given by them to others, social comparison can take place. This can lead to feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, or envy, all of which can damage one’s self-esteem.

·   Expensive gifts can also cause financial stress for both the giver and the recipient, especially if the giver feels burdened by societal expectations.

Are there any tips to ensure thoughtful and positive gift-giving experiences?

Fortunately, there is!

  • Take the time to learn about the recipient’s likes, hobbies, and needs, as a thoughtful gift reflects your understanding of their distinct personality. If your friend enjoys reading fiction, for example, you could go with a book in that genre rather than something like a self-help book.
  • A personal touch, such as a handwritten note, increases the sentimental value of a gift. For example, if you’re gifting a plant to your partner, a note could say something like, “Let this plant be a light to your workspace, just like how you are in my life.”
  • Experiences in the form of gifts often have an even greater impact than material possessions because the memories last a lifetime. For example, if you know someone who enjoys music, you should think about getting them a ticket to an outdoor concert.
  • Keep an open mind while selecting the kind and value of gifts, and never forget that it’s the thought that matters most. Therefore, select gifts that match your budget, for example, you can simply bake some homemade cookies to avoid financial stress!


Giving and receiving gifts is about more than just material possessions. Therefore, it is important to understand the impact of gifts on mental health, especially because people’s reactions can be different based on multiple factors as discussed earlier in this article. The key to thoughtful gift-giving thus rests in openly communicating expectations, preferences, and reasons for gifts, as it can lead to more positive outcomes, particularly during the holiday season.