Coming out of Christmas, and heading right into Valentine’s Day, it seems like there is a lot of gift-giving going on this time of year. But gifts are really a year-round endeavor. Birthdays, anniversaries, housewarmings, graduations, new job, new baby, the list goes on and on. But for all these gifts we give, how often do we ask ourselves why? Why do we give gifts?
There are essentially two schools of thought. One says that we give gifts for purely altruistic purposes. We want good things for another person. We want to recognize them and make them feel good. And one way we can make that happen is by giving gifts.
The other says that we give gifts because we expect something in return. That ‘something’ doesn’t have to be physical or have definable monetary value, but this camp would say we expect at least something intangible in return for a gift.
But does seeing gifts as serving a purpose, or giving the giver something in return, make them any less valuable? Does it mean that gift-givers are selfish people just out to get things for themselves?
In her forward to Marcel Mauss’s book, The Gift, Mary Douglas says, “A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.” In her view, gifts enhance solidarity, or strengthen relationships. But her point is not that this makes gifts less meaningful, or givers more selfish. Far from it. Her point is that gifts are far more than just a nice thing for one person. They are a way we build stronger connections in our society.
Gift-giving has created these connections in different ways throughout history. In some pre-European cultures in North America, there was an elaborate gift-giving event, called a potlatch, where honor and prestige was heaped upon the individuals, families or tribes that gave the most valued gifts.
In other cultures, gifts have enacted a very clear obligation on the part of a recipient. Think, for example, of an engagement ring. It is less of an unbreakable bond today, but at certain points in history, it was a gift which, if accepted, created a fairly solid, and sometimes even legally binding, obligation for the recipient to wed the giver.
Gifts today are somewhat less structured, though we are all familiar with some of the cultural constraints and norms related to gift-giving. For example, it’s bad form to not give a gift on a loved one’s birthday. And there’s often an awkward moment if two people exchange gifts and one obviously has far more monetary value than the other.
Let’s say, then, that we accept that giving gifts is not something we do for pure altruism. What exactly do gift givers get when they give gifts? Put another way, why do we give gifts?
A Closer Relationship
One thing you might get in return for a gift is a closer relationship with the recipient. This can manifest in many ways, from romantic relationships to friendships to business relationships.
When we give gifts to people we love, we expect that, in part, that gift will help maintain the positive connection in that relationship. When we give gifts to someone we hope to have a relationship with, we know that it might not happen. That doesn't mean we got nothing out of it, though. We likely still lay some groundwork for a relationship, whether it's exactly the relationship we were hoping for or not. Plus, we still get the warm fuzzies.
Sometimes when you give a gift, you expect a gift in return. At Christmas, for example, there is an expectation that people will exchange gifts, not that one person will give a gift and the other won’t. Economists find gift giving to be inefficient, because if we are all just exchanging gifts, there are bound to be gifts we don’t like. Whereas if we simply bought our own things, we’d know we were getting what we want.
But economists aren’t accounting for the cyclical strengthening of relationships that happens through giving gifts. And isn't the value of strengthened relationships and ‘enhanced solidarity’ worth a little economic inefficiency?
Look, watching someone open a gift you gave them makes you feel good. It’s true. But how is that a bad thing? Would a gift somehow be more valuable if it only brought the recipient joy, but you got no satisfaction out of it?
If you're of a certain age, you may recall an episode of Friends about this. Joey says there is no such thing as a purely altruistic act, because it makes you feel good when you do it. Phoebe is appalled by this and spends the episode trying to find a purely good deed that doesn't make her feel good.
But isn’t Phoebe missing the point? Why shouldn’t we feel good when we do something nice for someone or give them a gift? Why wouldn’t that be a good thing? Isn't better for both people to be happy than only one?
When you give gifts, you get something, too! Either a stronger relationship, a gift in return, or some warm fuzzies for making someone else's day. Give yourself some warm fuzzies by sending someone a gift using EvaBot today!