Gifts Burden Men, Gladden Women

While red metallic wrapping paper looks festive, it's often not recyclable. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Thank you so much for reading this column. Really, I can’t thank you enough. I am so grateful, and the good news is that I don’t feel like I have to repay your kindness at all. I feel no obligation to, say, read something of yours.      Instead, I can just enjoy your gift and feel happy.      My happy gratitude when receiving a gift is, apparently, a typical response for a woman. Psychologist Todd Kashdan, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University, has been studying the positive side of human psychology for the past nine years. In his soon-to-be-published book, "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life" (William Morrow), he says that the key to happiness is in combining three elements — meaningful relationships, living in the present, and gratitude. In his most recent series of studies, Kashdan was interested in gratitude and looked at how people react when given a gift.      Women, it seems, accept a present and really enjoy it, while men unwrap a gift and immediately feel a sense of obligation to the giver. According to Kashdan, a gift is a burden to men and for women a present is simply a nice thing to receive.      But men are not out of line in seeing gifts as obligations. Around the world, gift giving is full of meaning and duty. For example, the !Kung San of Botswana have a formalized system of gift exchange called hxaro in which gifts are exchanged to cement relationships. People are considered rich not when they stockpile goods, but when they give and receive. More critically, the system is far reaching; it goes beyond immediate family and connects people from different geographic regions. At that level, hxaro can work as a social entree to a new resource area when times are bad.        Traditionally, Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast gave huge parties in which they gave away expensive gifts to raise their status in the community. After European contact, these "potlatches" got out of hand and party givers were burning piles of goods just to show that they could. Once again, it was not the gift, but the gesture of giving that gave the event meaning, even if no one got anything.      We do the same at Christmas as we make a list and decide who deserves what, and we expect stuff in exchange. Birthdays are much less stressful because the gifts are going one way, but people still kept mental notes of what they got from whom, and check it against their own generosity.      It may be that women take all this gift exchange much less seriously than men, or perhaps they are just better at playing the game so that the obligation is no big thing. For instance, I can enjoy that you are reading this column because, hey, I don’t know you and therefore don't feel I will be held accountable in the future for reciprocating. And even if I did, I would be happy to go shopping and get you something.      And maybe that's the gender key to gratitude. Maybe women take more pleasure in receiving gifts because they take more pleasure in giving them.   

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link). Her Human Nature column appears each Friday on LiveScience.

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.