The Gift of Giving


BY LUKE FOSTER, LIVIN PSYCHOLOGIST 

Dear Santa,

How are you? Okay, that’s enough chit-chat, let’s get down to business.

For Christmas, I would like.

  1. Adidas NMD_R1 trainers – white.
  2. Chanel Gabrielle hair mist.
  3. Hugo Boss leather wallet – brown. NOT black.

Lots of love, Luke.

Let’s face it, it can be nice to receive gifts at Christmas. Unwrapping presents in front of the family. Accumulating piles of new clothes and accessories, new gadgets and gizmos. Getting nice things from others or spending money on ourselves can make us feel happy for a little bit, but the science is out, GIVING makes us happier. In one simple study, participants were asked to spend $5 on themselves or $5 on someone else.

Those who spent money on other people were measurably happier. So, why not approach this holiday season with a renewed mindset and prioritise GIVING over RECEIVING? And when I say giving, this does not necessarily mean handing out material items, spending hundreds of dollars on others, you can GIVE in other ways. As Art Buchwald once said, “the best things in life aren’t things”. We’ll come back to this soon and toss up some ideas around giving this Christmas, but before we do that, let’s talk about some sciency stuff.

When you give to another person, many people experience a physiological response; changes actually take place in your brain; positive things start to happen. When you give to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres light up like a Christmas tree. Giving appears to stimulate the release of feel-good chemicals and hormones like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin which make you feel warm and fuzzy.

These are similar chemicals to the one’s we discussed in our earlier articles on the benefits of exercise and social support. The release of oxytocin is particularly prominent when giving.

Oxytocin, a hormone also released during sex or when eating nice food, floods your body and makes you feel more connected to others. A solid dose of oxytocin can encourage people to give more generously and to feel greater empathy towards others – not just for a minute or two, but for hours in some cases.

This is why those who do receive acts of kindness, who also experience the release of feel-good chemicals (though to a lesser extent than the person giving) generally have a strong desire to pay it forward. In fact, giving seems to be contagious; it can spur a ripple effect of generosity throughout our communities. This ‘silly’ season be sure to raise your champagne glasses and cheers to our old mate, oxytocin – it’s seriously gooooood stuff.

What else can giving do for us? Well, according to some heavy hitters in the academia game (the people out there dedicating a lot of time to research on the science of giving) giving can:

  • Make us feel happy through the release of feel-good chemicals and hormones.
  • Can be good for our overall health. Giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.
  • Giving can increase longevity of life by reducing stress.
  • Giving evokes gratitude, and research has found that gratitude is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds.

If you think this sounds like bollocks, check out some of the work from people like Professor Michael Norton, happiness expert Sonya Lyubomirsky, Jorge Moll, Doug Oman, wellness expert Allan Luks and Stephanie Brown (to name just a few of the smart people working in this space).

So, what sorts of things can we give to others?

There’s no harm in restating this quote, because it’s a ripper – “the best things in life aren’t things”. Sure, you can buy gifts – we are not discouraging this at all, but you can also give by volunteering your time, or donating money to a charity this holiday season.

Research has shown that when people give to charities it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating a warm glow effect, also known as a “helper’s high”. Even providing practical help to others or offering social and emotional support to others can yield similar effects.

More specifically, perhaps try some of these things this holiday season:

  • Offer your seat to someone else on a crowded train or bus
  • Pay for a coffee for the person behind you in the line at your local café
  • Buy a pint for the bloke standing next to you at the bar
  • Invite a ‘lonely’ friend or acquaintance over for dinner
  • Write a thank-you card to someone who has helped you out over the course of 2019
  • Sit down with someone you might be worried about and mindfully listen to them. Check out our article on the benefits of social support and practice the activity of mindful listening with someone you think may benefit from a good chat.

No doubt after reading this, all those Dear Santa letters you have drafted will undergo a revision.

Dear Santa,

How are you? This Christmas I really don’t need too much at all from you. But please help yourself to a shot of whiskey and some freshly baked cookies – this is my gift to you!

Lots of love, Luke.

"If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody."