Christmas is the season of giving. For a brief time we are encouraged to take a step back and be more thoughtful. During the Christmas season we are expected to be more generous, and kinder towards everybody. A remnant, we are told, of the true meaning of the holiday. We give gifts, donate to charities, and are inspired to help others. This is the heart-opening sentiment that makes Christmastime a truly beautiful occasion. The magic endures if we are able to withstand the cold grasp of uncontrolled consumerism, or the hot flashes of seasonal rage associated with long line-ups, and lack of parking.
Once the holidays are over we toss the tree, pack-up the lights and ornaments, and resume our routines. We can forget the power that generosity has played on our sense of well-being. As it turns out giving, and by this I mean thoughtful generous giving, is more rewarding than receiving. The science of generosity has proven it does have a positive impact on people, both psychologically and physically. We now know that being generous, with either your time or your resources lowers blood pressure, reduces risk for cardiovascular problems and dementia, lessens anxiety and depression, and elevates mood. If there was a pill that offered all that we would probably sit up and take notice, yet the the importance of generosity is often overlooked. When we give, either by volunteering, or by donating money or other personal resources, it fires up a part of our brain called the mesolimbic pathway. This area of the brain is responsible for feelings of gratification. Helping others floods our brain with happy chemicals like dopamine, it activates endorphin production which blocks out pain signals, and produces oxytocin, also known as the tranquility hormone. Helping others can distract our minds away from stressors and problems associated with our selves, it can boost self-esteem, and even help ease social isolation. Being generous, it would seem, is good for us.
All the major spiritual traditions agree. For both Christians and Muslims alike offering time, assets, or talents to aid someone in need is considered a virtue. According to Buddhist philosophy, generosity is one of the Ten Perfections. At Christmas, we tap into our giving natures. However, it can be hard to stay focused on being generous. We get sucked into the drama of our own hardships, or become overwhelmed with attending to the mundane details of everyday life. We are learning that year-round givers achieve more than those cautious, self-serving takers who subscribe to a worldview of scarcity and competition. We probably all know at least one stereotypical, self-protective taker, who constantly puts themselves first, fearful of not coming out on top. However, advances in neuroscience do not back up this mentality that winning at the game of life is tied to having more. In fact the opposite has been demonstrated. Generosity all by itself provides us with a huge hit of the right kind of happiness chemicals. Having more is an endless cycle defined by needing more to maintain the boost, it is a game we can unfortunately never win.
In a world where the accumulation of wealth has become a cultural obsession, the Sacred Hoop offers a balanced approach to the trait of generosity. The Sacred Hoop, or Medicine Wheel, is a metaphor for a variety of spiritual concepts. Used by many North American First Nations, the Medicine Wheel can refer to a number of key interpretations, one being the 4 aspects of life (Belonging, Independence, Mastery, Generosity). There is great diversity within the various nations, but a common theme is the central aspect of generosity or altruism. Many First Nations celebrate generosity as a fundamental way of life, and in a different time, it was a necessity for survival. What First Nations leaders and healers understood was that ritual generosity ensured wealth was not accumulated by a few, but spread among the people for the survival of the whole. Most collective cultures have this aspect as part of the central practice. Individualistic cultures that dominate North America and Europe, have a harder time encouraging its citizens to flex their empathy muscles and act generously. Therefore It comes down to families to work this into their daily narrative. It is important what we say, but equally important how we act.
I remember being surprised when I first learned that psychologists discovered they can predict which relationships will endure and which will not, based on the presence of only two qualities. Naturally I thought love might have something to do with it, but I was wrong. Researchers determined that two other qualities figured prominently, and were highly predictive of relational success or failure. In the ‘love lab’ of the Gottman Institute, seeing evidence of generosity and kindness in relational interactions was the strongest predictor of relationship longevity. In the couples deemed ‘the masters’ nearly every interaction demonstrated mutual generosity and kindness. By contrast, the couples deemed ‘the disasters’ lacked generosity altogether, and showed more hostility and contempt in nearly every interaction. I find this study fascinating because it reminds me of the importance of behaving generously. Even small and seemingly insignificant acts of generosity can have life-transforming benefits to others and oneself.
During this time of personal resolutions, I much prefer to set intentions. I make my way in this world with as much intentionality as I can muster, and I am still learning what that looks like. So for 2017, I’m setting the intention to be more generous. In both small and large deeds. I will fail at times, that is certain. However, getting it perfect is not the point. Being in touch with the direction I want my life to turn is the humble goal.
There are many ways to include more generosity in your day-to-day life, and make it have a greater impact on your own well-being. Here are some suggestions from the generosity experts:
- Find a way to connect with the impact your generosity can make.
- Volunteer- the magic number of hours per year for personal benefit is about 100, studies have shown volunteering at least 100hrs/year significantly reduces mortality rates.
- If you are going to give your time, money or assets, contribute to something that has personal meaning for yourself.
- Give with groups of other people to heighten the impact.
Happy 2017, I hope the intentions you set for yourself bring you a greater sense of well-being in the coming year.
Thanks for reading,