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Understanding The Philosophy Behind ‘Giving’ Might Help You Overcome Gift Stress

The act of giving is an essential part of the human experience. Whether it's in the form of time, gifts, food, money (or whatever your 'love language' is), we give to celebrate, show care and help others. And perhaps no other time of year is more defined by giving than Christmas.
Unfortunately, the stress and pressure of the season can often turn giving into an act of mindless materialism and obligation, rather than one of selflessness and genuinely wanting to put a smile on someone's face.
So, how do we turn the tide on thoughtless, impulsive giving and make it into something meaningful? Considering that 2021 has been such an intense test of patience, it can feel like the pressure is on to ramp up the spending and revel in the extravagance of our holiday celebrations. But is that actually in the spirit of what giving truly means?

What is the philosophy behind 'giving'? 

Philosophers have pondered the act of giving for years. Gift-giving itself is a historical act that's been documented throughout the ages — from the Romans presenting each other with good luck tokens to medieval knights gifting presents to their kings as a means to gain trust.
We can always reflect on how we approach the act of giving more mindfully, whether it's giving to the needy or as an act of celebration.
"The gift is primarily about the relationships being transacted, about the people involved in these transactions rather than the ceremonial giving and receiving of things," says historian and author Richard Cevantis Carrier.
In short, when we give a gift, we're giving so much more than the physical thing itself. We're offering time, thought, and a symbol to actively strengthen our relationships.
Yes, I know — this can add an extra level of stress to the process of having to buy something for someone. The pressure to ensure that someone knows we understand them, have spent an appropriate amount of money, and put a reasonable amount of time into a gift can be daunting.
However, you don't have to give the 'perfect' gift to demonstrate this.
For example, an ex-manager of mine once gifted me Travis Barker's autobiography as a secret Santa gift (I am a lifelong, die-hard Blink-182 fan and had owned the book since it was released). It was after a year where we hadn't exactly seen eye-to-eye the entire time and found ourselves in a few sticky work situations. So while I'd already owned a copy of the book for years, I know she would've genuinely thought about whether I'd like and appreciate it.
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I couldn't help but feel as though she actually 'got me' after I'd received the gift. On the plus side, my boyfriend now owns this copy, so there was no waste involved either.
Generally, the best gifts are the kind that put a smile on the face of more than one person — like baking a cake to take to someone's house or taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party. You could take this even further by buying a gift with a greater social implication — like how The Body Shop's Christmas range directly supports their Community Fair Trade program to facilitate support for social and environmental projects.
Remember at the end of the day, gifts don't have to be expensive — they just have to symbolise that you're about to share and spread joy with another person.

What do we owe to people we don't know?

Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist and sociologist, said that "Gift-giving is not uninterested — that is, people don't just give gifts freely and without expectation."
So what about philanthropy and charity? That usually assumes that you're giving to someone you don't know, someone you'll never meet, and you don't expect anything from them in return.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer says that it's basically our moral obligation to help those less fortunate than us. And since Christmas is a time of year in which we are reminded of how much we do have, giving back to those who need it is essential. He said, "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."
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At Christmas, we often see charity activity ramp up. Whether it's at work, the local shopping centre's 'giving tree' or even flooded across our social media feed, it's a reminder that most of us do have the capacity to help.
It's easy enough. You can donate money to a cause you care about (both as a gift in the form of a donation in someone's name or as a straight donation), support local businesses who've done it tough this year, put together hampers of food and gifts — the list is truly endless.
And you can be mindful of where you spend your money when you're buying presents. For example, every purchase from The Body Shop this Christmas will support the Little Dreamers Young Carer Advocacy Project (YCAP). They'll also be donating 100% of proceeds from their gift tags to Amnesty International to support their Raise The Age campaign, and have a long-running Community Fair Trade program to support their suppliers to gain market access and invest in social and environmental projects that benefit rural communities.
Maybe the perfect gift doesn't exist, and sometimes with life obligations taking the front seat, we can't be as altruistic as we want to be. But amidst all the craziness, we can think about why exactly we're giving in the first place. Stripping it back and remembering that you're giving something to make someone else's life a little better or easier can help you reset and become a more conscious giver.
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