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What Makes A Gift?

There’s the old adage that goes “It is better to give than to receive” that we all have heard from our parents and one we all will likely pass on the same. When I was a child, I did not understand this phrase-receiving was the best! But, as I got older, like most people, I have found that this sentiment rings more and more true with every passing year. It truly is better to give than receive because you can watch a gift inspire joy or passion in someone else. But, in the same vein, the phrase does not really encapsulate why this is true. I believe the adage may be simplified to be more accurate.

To give is to receive.

In the study of revolutions and social mobilizations, there is a term called ‘process benefits’. It was created to try and help explain the reason that people mobilize in situations against their own health and well-being. For one to risk life and limb, especially in areas and movements like the 2011 Arab Spring, where going out to protest meant you very well may never come back, a motivator is necessary. In this instance, process benefits refer to the feeling gained after attending a rally or march, the feeling that makes one think that they are making a difference and can take on the world. Any psychologist will emphasize the importance of rewards and reinforcement in shaping behaviors, and, as power struggles throughout history have shown, there are few motivators stronger than the personal creation of change.

However, process benefits extend far beyond the reach of movements and marches. Process benefits include the feeling someone gets from volunteering and working to improve their community, or doing something as simple as signing an online petition. In giving, whether it be time, money, or effort, you are also receiving additional benefits from simply completing whatever process you have undertaken. Whether it be relishing the joy on the face of a family member or friend, or feeling that you have made a difference in the world, process benefits are the reason that it truly better to give than receive.

What really makes a gift? A gift is defined in the dictionary as “something given voluntarily without payment in return.” However, the definition leaves out the true meaning behind a gift: Why we give it. Sure, especially around this time of year, a gift has become an expectation and a social norm, given out to family, co-workers, friends, and anyone else we wish to deliver a bit of holiday spirit to. Often, this results in presents that are returned, thrown out, or regifted through a never-ending exchange of scented candles and Bed Bath & Beyond products.

But, like that one piece of clothing everyone has that they begrudgingly don when its giver comes by, gifts nowadays are often fleeting. With planned obsolescence, cheap manufacturing, and sometimes just plain bad taste, the joy given, as well as received, can sometimes be as ephemeral as the holiday season itself. Especially with family members, there is often the dilemma: How do I balance meaning with utility? Meaningful gifts that people actually use are hard to consistently come by.

So, why not give the gift of a gift? Transferring along those process benefits that embody the holidays is surely better a sweater that will never see the light of day, especially if it carries meaning beyond the initial exchange. Give to organizations like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, or Wisconsin Microfinance, in which a gift of the same price level as a fruitcake can go towards giving someone clean water or the chance to break the cycle of poverty. In this instance, those gifts are long lasting, integral to life, and provide a moral satisfaction that cannot be pulled from a catalog. After all, our parents always told us it is better to give than receive.