It’s that time of year when many people are focused on exchanging gifts and donating to charities. But there’s more to this tradition than checking items off your To Do list. A study published earlier this year in Nature Communications found that being more generous, even if your acts of giving are small in nature, could make you happier. Just pledging to be a more generous person can have that effect, too.
“It’s telling us that giving is its own reward, that it boosts happiness, even when we anticipate giving something to someone,” says Joel A. Pava, PhD, director of psychotherapy services at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s no doubt an evolutionary adaptation. Cooperating with one another helps us, and is no doubt a key to the survival of humans as a species.”
Give Your Brain a Gift
Enjoying the look of excitement on a relative’s face when you surprise them with a gift may seem like a simple response. But there’s actually a lot going on physiologically when you play Santa.
Dr. Pava explains that higher levels of chemicals such as oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins stimulate your reward centers. “Giving improves your psychological wellbeing and provides greater life satisfaction,” he adds. “You develop greater feelings of meaningfulness, higher self-esteem, less depression, more positive attitudes, and you really become distracted from your own problems.”
And from a physical health perspective, being generous may help lower blood pressure, boost resistance to inflammation, and reduce stress hormone levels—all of which are associated with longer life
Ways to Become More Generous
The great thing about the generosity prescription is that you can take steps to give more and think more like a generous person starting today. Dr. Pava suggests looking for ways to give to others. This is especially important if you are limited financially and want to find ways to give other than with expensive presents and monetary donations. “You can make an intellectual decision to learn more giving ways and become more empathetic,” Dr. Pava suggests.
Some strategies include:
- Model generous behavior and experimenting with giving.
- Become more aware of circumstances when giving would be welcomed.
- Interact with giving, charitable people and programs. Learn from them. Respond to these exposures and practice what you have learned.
And remember that giving presents is only one way to be generous. Helping a friend or relative, volunteering, and supporting someone emotionally are all invaluable ways to give of yourself. “Sharing an activity, such as a game of chess, with someone is a way to give,” Dr. Pava says. “Entertaining others, if you have a talent such as music, is a gift. So is just visiting with someone who could use a little company.”
Actions Speak Loudest
Researchers noted in their study that small gifts and little acts of kindness can be among the most happiness-inducing behaviors. Dr. Pava says it starts with having a giving attitude and sharing your time and energy, even if you are very busy.
“For example, taking the time to help a colleague at work, or spending time with a lonely family member will make you feel better, too,” he says. “It’s an attitude. Generous actions make people happier than writing someone a check. Interpersonal giving is very powerful. It really doesn’t matter whether the gift is small or large—random acts of kindness, a small gesture to someone else—can lead to personal happiness.”
A Word of Caution
With all this good will abounding, it’s worth noting that it’s possible to give too much. “There is such a thing as being too selfless, and this is not a healthy condition,” Dr. Pava says. “We see excessive giving in caregivers. This can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression. People who give excessively may forget to take care of themselves. There has to be a balance between giving and taking care of yourself. You have to give to yourself, too. It’s called ‘self-compassion’.”
Being Grateful Has Rewards, Too
While you look for ways to be more generous, remember the importance of being sincerely grateful, too. The phrase “giving thanks” suggests that being an appreciative gift getter can trigger the same kinds of positive emotions as being a kind-hearted gift giver.
“Accepting a gift from another can also be a generous act,” Dr. Pava says. “Your appreciation for the other’s kindness makes that person happy.”