The best way to cheer up during the holidays has nothing to do with unwrapping gifts, according to science

  • Giving gifts is psychologically more rewarding than getting gifts, according to science.
  • Even if you can’t afford much, the science has found small donations of time or money can still make people happier.

If you want to maximise your holiday cheer, don’t hope for more presents under the tree.

According to science, the real way to find joy is by giving gifts, not getting them.

A wealth of psychological research has found that humans – pro-social animals through and through – reap far more satisfaction and fulfillment from making others happy than by indulging themselves.

The finding stems from the premise that early humans had an evolutionary advantage if they were generous. Bearing short-term costs for long-term gain, in the form of goodwill and reciprocal generosity, kept these humans safer and well-fed.

Humans don’t really have to relate to one another so primitively anymore. But the psychological rewards seem to have stuck around. A handful of studies have found that doing good for others increases happiness more so than receiving the same amount.

Most recently, researchers published a study in Nature that found a neural link between generosity and happiness.

People who were put in an fMRI machine – a tool that measures brain activity based on blood flow to certain regions – showed greater activation in the parts of the brain governing feelings of happiness when they made promises to be generous with their money, compared to the control group.

And good news for those without much to give: The amount you give might not matter so much, according to lead author Philippe Tobler, associate professor of neuroeconomics and social neuroscience at the University of Zurich.

“It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect – like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning,” Tobler told Time.

Other experiments of giving and receiving have found that donating time can reap just as much benefit as gifts of money or material goods. A recent review of 40 studies done over the last 20 years showed that volunteering was one of the top ways to boost psychological health.

So even if you can’t wrap something for someone this Christmas, the science is clear: Give what you can. You’ll be helping others, and also yourself.

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