The Holidays and the Meaning of Giving

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Positive psychology tells us that there are physical and mental health benefits to giving to others. With the holidays in mind this becomes an important discussion. The question is, what is meant by giving? Here, in the United States, the world giving carries overtones and undertones of money and presents. Each year, people go out shopping for things that they hope will out do what they spent and gave the year before. Yet, for all the spending, people feel depressed both during and after the holiday season. Why? Is it possible that spending on gifts is not the kind of thing that positive psychology is talking about when it points out the benefits of giving?

First, research shows that giving makes people feel happy. The fact is that there are many ways to give that are satisfying while helping the community. For example, donating to charities and volunteering in the community are positive ways of giving that have value above and beyond only gifts. There are several people I know of who volunteer their time in animal shelters. I know of some who give by participating in soup kitchens or in homeless shelters. Studies show that giving like this activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. Researchers also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high” or a warm inner glow.

It is possible that giving volunteering and giving also relieve or reduce stress and that, it’s even possible that this gives the immune system a boost. In other words, giving promotes over all good health and happiness. 

In our consumer oriented society, the major theme seems to be to shower our kids with electronic toys, computers and Iphones. This is especially so during the holiday season. What message does this convey to kids. Is it that money and toys represent love? It is possible that parents who work all the time feel guilty for not being with their kids and compensate with gifts. However, being together as a family is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and our children. Then, too, there is a spiritual message that is important for those who are so inclined. Materialism is not spiritual or meaningful and that is why people, including our kids, often feel depressed after the holidays. The excitement derived from gifts soon wears off when all is said and done. It is valuing each other that is most important.

The point is that it is important to be generous but generosity can be conveyed in ways that are more personal and meaningful than giving “things.”

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