Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

Why the act of giving just makes you feel so darn good: Jennifer Moss

The act of giving a gift is good for you, writes happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss. And it doesn't have to be a big gift for people to get the warm fuzzies.

Giving goodwill is at the root of lifelong happiness, Moss writes

The act of giving can make you feel really happy, writes Jennifer Moss. Maybe not quite like the model in this stock photo, but genuinely happy. (InesBazdar / Shutterstock)

Research shows that giving is so healthy for us. It can lower our blood pressure, decrease stress, and even increase life span.

So why is giving so good for us?

When we give, most of us feel a warm and fuzzy feeling. That's obviously the non-scientific description, but those feelings can be explained in scientific terms.

The Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre, says biologically, giving can create a "warm glow," activating regions in the brain associated with happiness, connection with other people and trust.

There is evidence that when you give, "feel good" chemicals are released in our brains such as serotonin (a mood-mediating chemical), dopamine (a feel-good chemical) and oxytocin (a compassion and bonding chemical).

It also stimulates the reward centre in the brain, releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the "helper's high." And like other highs, this one is addictive, too.

That holiday feeling

Dubbed the "Christmas spirit network," a team of scientists from Denmark found in a 2015 study that our brains light up when we see images associated with the holidays. Some experts believe that because giving is associated with the holidays, it plays a role in our heightened feel-good state during this time of the year. 

Of course, giving gifts can make us feel genuinely happy. That moment when you see someone's eyes light up from the perfect gift can be truly wonderful.

But the act of giving isn't all about giving gifts. And if giving gifts means we're overspending, then it have the opposite impact on our mental health. 

According to the Deloitte Canada 2021 Holiday Retail Outlook, Canadians are expected to spend an estimated $1,841 on the holidays — way above 2020 spending and even more than pre-pandemic levels. 

It doesn't have to be a big or expensive gift. The act of giving can include volunteering at a local charity or even offering to walk a frazzled friend's dog. (Cookie Studio / Shutterstock)

Again, giving gifts can make us feel good too, but there are other, more meaningful ways to give this season. 

Here are a few:

Give social support

Social support is a fundamental way to give during the holiday season and all year round. Researchers have delineated four distinct types of social support that we can offer:

  • Emotional support can be offered just by listening and empathizing. Not everyone is happy around the holidays, especially if they are lonely, grieving or financially strained. Actively listening is a helpful way to offer social support. 
  • Esteem support is demonstrated by showing expressions of confidence or encouragement. Start right now by celebrating someone on social media or telling your friend how awesome they are in a text or email. Encourage someone who needs it. 
  • Informational support can be delivered by being a place of knowledge for people seeking advice, or developing allyship with parts of our community where this a lack of safe places to talk. 
  • Offer tangible support, which means taking on a responsibility for someone as a way to give them more emotional bandwidth. 

Give the gift of time

In addition to offering social support, donate your time. Research published in the book The Paradox of Generosity by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson found that people who volunteer an average of 5.8 hours per month describe themselves as "very happy," while those who volunteer 0.6 hours report feeling unhappy. 

A volunteer is seen at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto in this file photo. Giving your time can be just as rewarding as giving a great gift, Moss writes. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

Remember, volunteering can be structured, like organized fundraising or serving food at a homeless shelter. Volunteering also means visiting an elderly neighbour, running an errand for a friend, shoveling someone's driveway or walking a friend's dog. Volunteering is simpler than most people realize. It's just about helping others. 

Donate money

That same study found that people who donate more than 10 per cent of their incomes have lower depression rates than those who don't.

In another study, $10 Starbucks cards were handed out. The people who gave their card away experienced the highest happiness levels.

All of these studies simply reinforce that it all boils down to kindness. Giving goodwill is at the root of lifelong happiness.

Cliché or not, it's the truth. The more you give, the more you receive. So give kindness this holiday season and throughout the rest of the year. It's the gift that keeps on giving. 

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