While the holidays can be hectic and stressful, they are the perfect time for joy and generosity. Benevolence for its own sake is wonderful, of course, but studies have shown that giving to others provides measurable health benefits as well. Whether you are volunteering your time to a community in need, raising money for your favorite charity, or just sending a small token of appreciation to your child’s classroom teacher, your consideration is good for everyone.
Generosity improves your physical well-being
In fact, researchers have found correlations between giving and several indicators of overall well-being such as:
- lowered blood pressure
- improved self-esteem
- decreased stress
- feelings of happiness and contentment
Generosity improves your mental well-being
Studies have even indicated that “givers” live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Why might that be?
First, giving releases feel-good chemicals. Serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin are stimulated by generosity. Together, they promote overall mental health through self-esteem, connection, compassion and positive mood. Further, MRIs have revealed that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, also known as the reward center of the brain. This releases endorphins and reinforces the behavior that led to the positive feelings. Known as the “helper’s high,” this behavior can become self-reinforcing, or addictive, because it feels so good.
Second, these chemicals stimulate the areas of the brain associated with compassion, bonding, and trust. Therefore, when we give to others, we reinforce relationships and expand gratitude as we extend warmth, well-being, and a sense of belonging to those around us.
Finally, generosity can take us out of ourselves, put our lives and our problems into perspective, and make us feel as though we are part of something greater. Service is emphasized in most religious traditions, and it is a large part of many 12-step/recovery programs. The sharing of time and resources is a practice that has long been known to promote well-being. Only now is science beginning to catch up to what humans have innately understood as a cornerstone of healthy people and functional societies for as long as we can remember.
Generosity can be simple
Even so, it is worth noting that generosity does not need to be excessive. It doesn’t even have to be material. It can consist of a small note of gratitude or a spoken word of appreciation. It can be as accessible as giving the harried fellow-shopper the parking spot. It can even be the gift of your uninterrupted time and attention shared with a loved one for whom the holidays are difficult.
Therefore, this season, I challenge you to opt out of the holiday mania, the expectations of perfection, and the overblown spectacle that the season sometimes teeters on. Instead, try to focus on meaningful tokens of appreciation, small acts of generosity, and the unending gift of your presence. In the words of Pee-Wee Herman in one of the all-time favorite Christmas specials of my childhood, “Christmas is the time that we should be thinking of what we can do for others.” If for no other reason, do it because it’s good for you.