The Psychological Benefits Of Gifting

To give or not to give — that is the question. With the economy in trouble, you might feel guilty about spending money on presents this month. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, says that you shouldn't.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. The economy is really hurting the holiday season this year. People are reining it in when it comes to buying presents; I know I am. But even in hard times, people are having trouble saying no to gift giving altogether. Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and she's on the line now. So, Professor Langer, why is it so hard for people to say, you know, no gifts this year, we really can't afford it?

Dr. ELLEN J. LANGER (Psychology, Harvard University): Well, there are several reasons. The first, it's hard to break tradition. Second, that there are many very positive aspects of gift-giving that one would then be denied if they don't give a gift. And I think that people are choosing, rather than not giving the gift, but to either make the gifts, which is a wonderful idea, or to give even more thought to what they might give that costs less than they might have spent in the years past.

And that is actually a very wonderful thing, because the advantage of giving a gift is that when you decide to give somebody a gift, typically it means you are going to be thinking about them. You are going to be thinking about what they might like, what you can afford, and that making these decisions is empowering for the gift giver. When you give a gift, it makes you feel generous, it makes you feel in control, it's good for your self-esteem and it's good for the relationship, because you come to know the person even better.

BRAND: OK, you are a professor of psychology.

Dr. LANGER: I am.

BRAND: And I'm just going to lay this at your feet now. I feel guilty now because my husband and I said to each other, you know, let's not buy each other gifts this year. Now, you're making me feel guilty because you are saying that it's actually a good thing to give a gift.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LANGER: Well, I think it is. I think that when you and your husband decided not to give gifts, what you were saying is, let's not spend a lot of money.

BRAND: Right.

Dr. LANGER: And there are other kinds of gifts that one could give. When I'm talking about gift-giving, it's typically outside of an intimate relationship, because there you have so many opportunities to show each other that you care. But for - lots of people think that they protect their children, for example, by not having them give gifts. No, no, I don't need it, says the mother to the child. And I think she does them a disservice because I think that he starts to feel more grown up, when he's giving the gift.

You know, it all depends, of course, on the way one buys a gift. I mean, you can just walk by something, give it no thought, pick it up and say, OK, well, I can check that person off the list. Then, if that's the way you give a gift, then you just might as well keep the money, no matter how little the purchase might have been. But if you are going to spend time thinking about it, that thinking is good for you in ways that I have said now, but in ways that people might not be aware of.

BRAND: Here is the thing, though; there seems to be such a long list of people that you have to buy, or you should buy, gifts for, or at least do something for during the holiday season. And it's not just your immediate family, but it sometimes it extends to teachers, to bosses, to coworkers, to the newspaper-delivery person, et cetera, et cetera.

Dr. LANGER: Yeah, no. I think that when we do the mindless giving, you know, year one, you're feeling flush and you buy everybody you know a gift. And then, year two, you continue it because, after all, you did it in year one and so on. And so you are doing it now mindlessly not mindfully, so it's not going have those positive consequences. And I think this is a wonderful opportunity to change all of that because everybody recognizes that the economy is hurting people.

BRAND: Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, advocating gift giving even in these tough economic times. Thank you very much.

Dr. LANGER: You are very welcome.

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