IN SOME office somewhere on this island, it is probably taking place right now - the year-end gift exchange among colleagues.

Some call it Secret Santa, others 'buying crap no one needs for someone you don't know'.

It is a good thing that there tends to be less work to do at this time of year anyway. Otherwise, Secret Santa might pose a serious impediment to productivity.

Before they even pick the names of this year's gift recipients, some have indulged in lengthy arguments about whether Secret Santa is a total waste of time and money and deserves to be scrapped.

Since the price cap per gift this year nationwide seems to be $20, would it not make more sense for everyone to donate that sum to charity so poor people can buy the things they actually need, goes the argument.

It is true that many participants in Secret Santa aim for clever or quirky gifts that those at the receiving end neither want nor have any use for.

Pink feather boas and red thongs spring to mind. One giver shared online his delight at having snagged a zombie apocalypse poster for - you guessed it - that magic figure of $20.

Now, there is no official data on the number of Singapore workers who faithfully engage in this ritual each year.

The resident labour force - made up of citizens and permanent residents - is two million strong. If one in 20 of them plays Secret Santa, that is a pool of 100,000 workers.

If each of these workers takes his $20 and donates it to charity, they would pump $2 million into the non-profit sector. The retail sector, though, might suffer a withdrawal of that same sum.

Does Secret Santa shopping fit the dictionary definition of waste, which is to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose?

It depends on what you consider wasteful. If to you, human activity should be rational, efficient, and have a direct and quantifiable impact on people whose needs are obvious, then Secret Santa will fail to measure up in your book.

It is, after all, about squandering time and money on a person you cannot probe for his preferences - as that would spoil the surprise element of the ritual - for an outcome that is both difficult to predict and measure.

Secret Santa does, however, open the door to serendipity.

You shop for someone you have little reason to buy for; you receive something from someone you do not expect anything from. Somewhere along the way, one of you might stumble upon a gift the other finds good or useful, but was not looking for.

Or you might not.

But giving is an activity that cannot always be measured in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Here's why: Sometimes, the kind of giving that appears to be a waste of time and money may prove to be quite valuable.

Since one alternative to Secret Santa shopping is to donate $20 each to charity, perhaps it is fitting to take a leaf from some women who, in the eyes of many, exemplify what that word means.

These women are the Missionaries of Charity - a religious order founded by Mother Teresa.

Every year, thousands of people of various ages and religious persuasions, hailing from different parts of the world, travel to Kolkata to volunteer in the homes run for the poorest of the poor by the Missionaries of Charity, or MC sisters.

A visit to Kalighat - a home for the destitute and dying - reveals that the sisters have no truck with time- and labour-saving machines. Everything is done by hand, from the cooking to the cleaning to the washing.

Is that an exercise in cost-cutting? Unlikely.

If the sisters were to ask each of those volunteers who show up at Kalighat each day to stay home and donate what they would have spent on airfare to Kolkata, the total collected would buy washing machines and dryers aplenty.

Instead, all laundry is washed by hand and laid out on the roof to dry. During the monsoon season, volunteers scamper out when the rain stops to sun the laundry, and dash out again to gather them in when the drops start pelting down.

Some have travelled halfway round the world to do this and it is unlikely they would squander their time and energy in like fashion back home.

The process is inefficient, but the volunteers brim with joy when the laundry is finally sunned to a crisp. Perhaps they do not often get to immerse themselves in manual labour for the sake of others.

Therein lies the point. What makes this season of giving a happy one is that most human beings enjoy giving to others.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience back this up. Mr Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide (2009), a book which uses neuroscience to explain human decisions, writes: 'Here's the lovely secret of altruism: It feels good.

'The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice.

'In a recent brain-imaging experiment, a few dozen people were each given $128 of real money and allowed to choose between keeping the money and donating it to charity. When they chose to give away the money, the reward centres of their brains became active and they experienced the delightful glow of unselfishness.'

Brain scans have shown that donating to a worthy cause leads to activation in the dopamine reward pathway. That is the same part of the brain that is turned on when people have sex, or eat a slice of chocolate cake.

And there is typically more reward-related activity in the brain when someone donates money than when he receives an equivalent amount.

While science tells us that we humans are made to love giving, each of us has to decide for ourselves the kind of giving we find most purposeful.

For some, it could be giving money to charity, or using their hands and legs to serve those who are unable to do things for themselves. For others, it could be to find a gift that will bring a smile to the face of a spouse, a child or a colleague.

A diversity of gifts and people helps keep this season of giving interesting.

Here's wishing you a joyful one!