Leiden Psychology Blog

Buying happiness or stress? The role of empathy in Christmas shopping

Buying happiness or stress? The role of empathy in Christmas shopping By Marcio carvalho

A few weeks before Christmas most people seem to be stressed out about what to buy their loved ones. But why do we make such an effort in buying all these gifts?

Queuing for hours, running from store to store, and the feeling of complete desperation as someone else grabs that last Lego kit you’ve been pursuing for days. Is it because we want to express our love, or is it because we want to satisfy the expectations of others?

Expressing love by empathy

Well, if it's about expressing our love, how does this work? One of the most important mechanisms behind expressing love is empathy, which is the ability to share other people's emotions and understand their needs. Empathy consists of two underlying constructs: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy can be explained as sympathizing with another person, for example “feeling” the pain when you see someone fall on a slippery sidewalk, or being moved to tears by a weeping friend who really misses his dog who passed away last Christmas. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is crucial for understanding the feelings of others; it enables us to take someone else’s perspective and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. You may understand, for example, that the glowering women at the counter looks like that because she is irritated by waiting in line for a very long time, or you may understand that your partner is very happy because she just got a Christmas bonus.

A happy shot of affective empathy

In short, empathic skills enable us to express our love. But how is empathy involved in Christmas shopping? On the one hand, there’s a component of affective empathy: we imagine the happy faces of our loved ones when they open our presents. Seeing the excitement of an important person in your life can put you in a happy state as well. Our brain explains how this works: the reward areas that become activated in your loved one's brain when he or she receives a nice present will activate the same reward areas in your brain. This mechanism works specifically for people who are close to you, according to a study that investigated brain activity when individuals experienced pain themselves compared to when they observed a loved one experiencing pain (Singer et al., 2004). Another study showed, moreover, that the affective pain regions in the brain overlapped when comparing activation for the self and for a friend. When participants observed strangers, this pain network remained unaffected (Meyer et al., 2013).

Cognitive empathy as stressor

So affective empathy can contribute to the very sweet and positive part of buying Christmas gifts. However, there’s another side of the story, which lies in the realm of cognitive empathy. Have you ever thought: “I bought this in the sale, so I’d better peel off that discount sticker before I wrap it”, or “I really hope they like my present”, or “I feel so guilty for not bringing an expensive present like they always do, but I just can’t afford it”… or secretly hoped that maybe this year your grandma wouldn’t buy yet another pink sweater just because once (10 years ago) you said you liked pink? In that case, maybe you find Christmas shopping stressful because you’re brimming over with thoughts about what others may think or expect.

In short, never underestimate Christmas shopping! It takes a lot of effort to take the other person’s perspective so as to pick the right present, and to make sure your presents are socially acceptable and you won’t be labeled a cheapskate. Fortunately, there’s also a very beautiful side: you feel happy because you share your loved one’s feelings of happiness. In the end, it’s the thought and effort that counts. Just remember that when you unwrap your grandma’s gift and find yet another pink sweater...

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