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If You Give a Monkey a Cookie: Research Suggests Giving Causes a “Warm Glow”

While the end-of-year holidays are meant to be a time of gratitude and love, many of us know that they can also be stressful. Holiday shopping can be especially anxiety-provoking—between agonizing over which color sweater best matches your mother’s eyes and dreading overcrowded stores, holiday cheer can quickly turn to seasonal angst.

We hope that you aren’t too worried about your gift list—but in case you are, we’d like to share encouraging results on gift giving and happiness published in a PLOS ONE study in 2012.

In this experiment, the authors set out to explore the emotional effects of giving amongst twenty 2-year-old children in Vancouver, Canada. Child participants played with a puppet named Monkey. After introducing the child to Monkey, the puppeteer first gave treats to the child, and then gave treats to Monkey, who mimed eating them with enthusiasm—the authors describe Monkey rummaging through a bowl of treats, saying “YUMMM!” Next, the puppeteer “found” a treat and invited the child to feed it to Monkey. Finally, the puppeteer asked the child to share one of their own treats with Monkey. Monkey reacted with the same enjoyment in all scenarios. Images from a child’s play with Monkey can be seen below.

Figure 2

Observers ranked each child’s reactions to these scenarios on a scale of 1-7 (1—not at all happy; 7—very happy,) based on the child’s facial expressions. Based on these scores, the authors concluded that children showed happier facial expressions when giving treats versus receiving treats. The authors also found that children looked happier when they gave their own treats to Monkey versus giving a treat “found” by the puppeteer.

The authors suggest that giving treats may have made children happier than receiving treats. Further, children may have been happier when giving away their own resources (the treat), also known as “costly giving,” versus giving Monkey a treat provided by the experimenter. While the present study suggests the impact of giving on happiness is large, replicating these findings with an additional sample would further support these claims. Future research could also explore whether giving to different targets produces varying degrees of happiness, or whether people feel greater emotional reward when they freely choose to give versus when they feel obligated to do so.

What might this mean for us holiday gift-seekers? If you find yourself worrying about finding the perfect gift, we hope that you remember something that we often forget—that giving may leave you with a warm glow. Further, the suffering that you endure waiting in long lines at the store might just make delivering the gift all the more satisfying in the end. Happy Holidays!

Hands holding a gift box isolated on black background

For more information on this study, see the authors’ recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” discussion.

Citation: Aknin LB, Hamlin JK, Dunn EW (2012) Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children. PLoS ONE 7(6): e39211. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039211

Images: Figure 2Gift by asenat29

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