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What Happens In Your Brain When You Give a DIY Gift?

DIY gifts are more than just presents, they're also happiness boosters

Rae Repanshek

How many of you have spent hours searching online for just the right gift for someone you barely know who maybe already has the nifty self-stirring mug you decided they probably don’t have but absolutely need in their life? I can’t be the only one. 

I put so much energy into finding the right gifts for people, stressing about how the giftee will respond. Will they love this? Will they think it’s dumb? Will they re-gift it to someone else next week? 

And maybe it’s because our culture puts so much emphasis on the consumerism of the holidays, setting lofty expectations around what the hottest gifts are, how much to spend and how many gifts to buy. But is that really what this time of year is all about? 

What about the warm fuzzies? What about the holly jollies? Do we really need to spend boatloads of cash on sh*t people don’t need and probably don’t want to adequately celebrate the season? I don’t think so.

I say it’s time we take back this holiday and put the focus on gift-giving just for the sake of it—for the pure oxytocin hit we get from doing something nice. (More on that later.) 

And here’s how I propose we do it: DIY gifts. Now, hear me out. I’m not necessarily talking about the types of crafts you made in kindergarten. I’m not suggesting creating an advent calendar out of construction paper and uncooked macaroni. (Unless that’s your thing, in which case please send me one. I would love that.) 

I mean, knitting a beanie, baking some cookies, painting a sunset or whatever it is you like to do with your hands. You get the idea.

There’s scientific evidence that the crafting process of creating a DIY gift compounds the mental health benefits you get from the act of gift-giving itself. 

How Gift-Giving Impacts Your Brain 

According to results from several studies completed over the past 10 years or so,  doling out cash in honor of someone else can actually make you happier. When we're generous, like when we buy someone a gift or donate to a cause we care about, it gets the areas of the brain responsible for social interactions and feeling good talking to each other.

Additionally, studies show that giving someone a gift activates the key reward pathways in the brain. But the reaction is different than what happens when the reward is something like receiving an award or winning cash. It's not just about the reward—there’s a social exchange. It kicks off a chain reaction that releases oxytocin, which is the hormone associated with feeling safe, connected and trusting (aka the “cuddle hormone”). Because oxytocin sustains longer in the brain, it has much more lasting effects than a quick hit of dopamine. 

When you combine the two, it’s like every feel-good part of the brain is lit up like Christmas lights. And because the social aspect is what makes this different, you can tap into those same feel-good chemicals regardless of whether you buy something or make something yourself. Giving a gift—any gift—for the sake of gift-giving will give you a little happiness boost. 

How Creating a DIY Gift Impacts Your Brain

The act of creating art—whether it’s painting, drawing, singing or even practicing circus skills like juggling—is shown to enhance mental health and positive life satisfaction. And this stays true no matter what other stuff is happening in your life, like the stress of the holidays, for example.

Another study found that regularly getting involved in artsy projects is linked with feeling less mentally frazzled and way more satisfied with life. Dabbling in the arts is also tied to just feeling mentally healthier overall.

So when you combine the feel-good chemicals of gift-giving with the mental benefits of creating something yourself, it’s no wonder this is considered the happiest time of the year. We’re all drunk on oxytocin. 

Enhancing the Benefits of DIY Gifts 

Depending on what type of gift you want to give, you may be able to double down on the mental health benefits. 

For example: Research shows that cooking is associated with better mental health and stronger family connections. Offering to cook for someone who’s unable to or doesn’t often have homecooked meals is a lovely gift in and of itself. 

There’s also loads of evidence pointing to the health benefits of spending more time in nature. You could forage for plant materials (somewhere it’s legal, of course) and craft something like a homemade wreath or a dried flower bouquet. 

Painting is also proven to be a great form of therapy, so you can express yourself and boost your well-being. You don’t need to be a skilled artist to create something your friends and family will love.

DIY gifts are just more personal, too. Anyone can buy bacon-scented soap or a yodeling pickle. (Yup, both are real things.) 

When you make a gift, you’re not just boosting your own well-being, you’re creating something from the heart. Something unique that could only possibly come from you. Something money can’t buy. And that’s going to be worth more to the recipient than a pair of fish flip-flops. (Yup, that’s also real.)

Last year, I gave out tins of homemade cookies with hand-written notes throughout the whole month of December. I love baking during the holidays and it felt so good to give away the treats. Plus it helped me form closer connections with my neighbors and within my community. I received so many thank yous and follow-ups of appreciation that I’m planning to do it again this year. 

So whether you’re giving or receiving gifts this year, don’t forget to follow up with a “thank you” to keep all those feel-good chemicals flowing through your brain. After all, showing gratitude comes with its own set of benefits.

Rae Repanshek is MUD\WTR's talented copy-writer.

Read More: How Microdosing Helps Me Deal with Holiday Triggers

Read More: 5 Ways to Slow Down During the Holidays

Read More: 3 Ways to Ask for Personal Space During the Holidays

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