Do Americans Actually Enjoy Giving Gifts?

It's an expensive, stressful, and socially-enforced tradition—but most people in the U.S. still love buying presents.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

By this point, those who are very organized (or those who celebrate Hanukkah) have probably finished their holiday shopping. But unless you celebrate Festivus exclusively, you're probably scrambling to buy gifts for family and friends this upcoming weekend. Although thoughtful gift giving can be hard, and like every year economists will surely lament the deadweight loss of holiday gift exchange, it's looking like Americans will still spend lots and feel good about it.

Americans are actually pretty generous on the gift giving front (second in the world to wealthy Luxembourgers). A recent Pew Research poll shows that across all age groups and income levels, around 80 percent of Americans surveyed felt "joyful" and "generous" about buying and receiving gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates 2014's holiday sales to exceed $6oo billion, or around $800 per personā€”$460 of which is estimated to go to gifts for family members.

If that sounds like a lot of money, that might be why 46 percent of those surveyed for the Pew poll reported feeling stretched financially. And those who haven't started shopping might fall in the 36 percent who report feeling stressed out by the whole holiday experience.

Gallup also has some historical data on what presents Americans want and give to others over the holidays. During World War II, Gallup found in a 1944 poll that the number-one gift people asked for was the end of the war. In 1954, appliances and cars were at the top of people's list for Christmas presents. And now, the top gift items for Americans are clothing, gift cards, toys, and books.

For the 23 percent of those surveyed who felt that gift giving is wasteful, anthropologists and psychologists have long argued for the social and personal benefits that come with this ritual that runs deep through human history. Much like the warm-glow effect, psychologists have argued that gift giving might benefit the giver more than the gift receiver, and result in important non-material emotional gains.

In particular, one study found that spending money on others results in more happiness than spending it on oneself. The researchers noted that even a small amount spent on others can lead to big gains. So as stressful as holiday gift giving can be, it might be a socially-enforced tradition precisely because it makes people feel good in the end.