If a single word could capture the feel of the winter holidays, it might be glow.

The word itself sounds snug and warm. It suggests candlelight, roaring fireplaces, and lights twinkling through boughs and brightening the darkest days of the year. It conjures the feeling that accompanies gift-giving, too. Giving gifts reliably creates such a cozy, pleasurable feeling that economists dub it the “warm glow” of generosity.

But much like the creeping shadows cast by even the cheeriest fire, the warm glow has a dark side. Economist James Andreoni, who coined the term, claimed that the glow of giving makes acts of generosity ultimately selfish: If giving feels good, how generous can it really be? Maybe gifts are just another way of using other people to make ourselves feel good.

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