On the surface, the winter holiday season seems like a universally festive time. It can also be a time that reminds us of the people that are no longer with us. “Dusty,” a retiree living in Australia, lost his wife two days before Christmas in 2013. This was only the latest in a series of loved ones who died around the holidays over the years, including his sister, brother-in-law and both of his parents.
“All my friends know that it’s not a happy time of year for me,” Dusty recently shared with a local Australian reporter. “That’s the way it is and I can’t do anything about it.”
Dusty is someone who, given his experience, could justify being a Grinch about the holidays, but has instead discovered a new way to celebrate them. While he can’t do anything to bring his loved ones back, he also doesn’t allow the holidays to turn him into a complete Scrooge. Instead, in 2014, he went to the supermarket, bought 20 turkeys and gave them to his local food bank. The next year he bought a few more. In 2016, he ordered a palette of 324 turkeys, and had them delivered directly to the food bank’s warehouse. They will make 2,000 holiday meals for people in need.
Whether Dusty is conscious of it or not, his generous giving over the years is both selfless and selfish. He’s giving out of a desire to help others have a more enjoyable holiday. And, every time he gives, it helps him have a better one, too.
There’s a good deal of research that tells us giving helps improve our moods, outlook on life and how we evaluate our own happiness. In one study, the Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia evaluated the happiness of employees who received a bonus, looking in particular at how they spent it. Regardless of the size of their bonus, people’s happiness correlated directly with how much of it they had shared with others.
In another study, also conducted by the two universities, volunteers were provided with $5 or $20 to spend however they liked — on themselves or someone else. Again, the altruistic group reported feeling happier no matter the size of their gift.
Giving has such a strong effect on our outlook on life because it activates our pleasure and reward centers. We receive the benefit as a giver as if we were the ones receiving the gift or good deed. It can release hormones like oxytocin, which lower our stress and make us feel more connected to others. A dose of oxytocin will also cause people to give more charitably and feel more empathy for others. Its effects can last up to two hours after the event and often inspire more acts of giving. Even witnessing someone else’s random act of kindness can can trigger this response, and spur others to pay it forward.
People often think our ability to be happy is based on reaching specific goals. But the truth is, happiness is an inside job and has nothing to do with life circumstances. Instead, our lives are improved because of our ability to handle what comes our way, and to create something better from the challenge. Just like Dusty, we can utilize generosity for more than making the world a better place. It can act as “medicine” to carry ourselves through tough moments, seasons and even years.
Over the next few weeks, many of us will be giving with our time and/or money because it’s the season to do so. How about the rest of the year? By paying it forward for others 24/7/365, we end up paying ourselves, too. Being altruistic improves the moment for everyone and may even spark ideas that help overcome current personal challenges. When you are a giver you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
This week perform some random acts of kindness wherever you go, especially when your mood is on the negative end of the spectrum. Evaluate how you feel after giving and how long that feeling lasts. Be as generous as you can for as long as you can. I’m willing to bet that you, your perspective — your whole world — will transform for the better.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” — Winston Churchill