Our expensive habit of gift-giving is, roughly speaking, a material indicator of the value of one person to another.  Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, argued “there is a higher logic to the gift economy … that mandates we keep giving and receiving objects of dubious value”.

Gift-giving, she said, was connected to “an innate human value called “reciprocal altruism” which makes the costs of gifts “a maintenance fee for your relationship”. All of this is warm (and as McArdle noted) fuzzy too. There are however real problems beyond conceptual warm fuzzy feelings.

As well-intentioned as gift-giving is, the reality is seldom that altruistic exercise in thoughtfully considered generosity. Most of us are time-poor and simply don’t know our recipents’ real wants and needs.

Research by Joseph Goodman (from Washington State University) and Sarah Lim (from Seoul’s Center for Happiness Studies) found people often buy material over experiential gifts, despite the fact that recipients often feel happier receiving experiences. Material gifts are those we can touch while experiential gifts are those that create a memory.

So gift-giving becomes a box-ticking exercise which we throw money at, then wrap up with a bow, just to be safe.

If it sounds mean-spirited to question gift-giving, that’s not the intention here. Only sociopaths, teenagers and debt collectors believe it’s better to receive than give. The problem is not gift-giving per se, it’s the mindless, bloated headless chook race that it becomes.

Last Christmas Australians splurged a mammoth A$28 billion on gifts alone on our credit cards – A$1272 for every many woman and child in Australia. Add the costs of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries and you can see how gift-buying has become a major driver of the retail engine in Western economies. But at a personal level, buying gifts for everyone, and without tight budgetary limits, starts to look like a recipe for accumulating unnecessary debt.

Debt consistently shows up in surveys as a leading cause of financial stress. So what you might think, who isn’t under stress these days? But it’s now widely known personal money pressures are consistently showing up in research as a major cause – if not the major cause – of stress in general.

Now new American research shows what the end result of financial stress could be: high levels of serious illness. In the United States, the company Four Seasons Financial Education surveyed 511 employees in a national study and found disturbing correlations between financial stress and health problems.

The respondents rated their level of financial stress,  then the prevalence of health issues between two groups was compared.

People with high financial stress had higher reported incidence of health issues across all nine illnesses identified – heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, infertility, gastrointestinal issues and sleeplessness, migraines/headaches and memory loss.

“The greatest disparities were found with anxiety and depression between these two groups,” the study findings said. In the groups with lower financial stress, 19 per cent reported depression and anxiety, but amongst the more financially stressed respondents, 55 per cent were depressed and 68 per cent had anxiety.

When the survey responses were further broken down, into the very highest and lowest levels of financial stress, people under extreme financial stress were five times more likely to have memory loss issues, more three times as likely to report depression and nearly twice as likely to have anxiety. They were also twice as likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Debt is a major cause for financial stress, so we are surely obliged to use whatever means we can use to reduce it. If you’ve tried all the usual advice and methods, it might be time to investigate a new approach.

In the final part of our series on the real cost of gift-giving, we look at how mindfulness can help reign in the costs of gift-giving and the intense pressure we can feel around it.