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With the holidays fast approaching, it can be a frantic time for shopping and list making. Sure, we all enjoy giving our kids presents, and take joy in what we receive from them, but how can we begin to cultivate an authentic spirit of generosity, a pleasure in giving rather than just getting in our families?
The good news is that we are wired for it. Even from a young age, humans are simple. Consider the delight a child shows when she shares her favorite stuffed animal with you. And now compare that to the misery of everyone within earshot when that same child demands another new stuffed animal that she sees at the checkout line. Even when we know giving makes us happy and wanting makes us (and everyone else) miserable, it can be so hard to put it into practice, not to mention teach to our kids.
As we give, that habit of generosity grows stronger, and even spreads to those around us like ripples in a pond. Regardless of how you describe this effect (karma, neuroscience, or social psychology), it’s a simple matter of cause and effect that you can actually see working in yourself, your family, and the world. I remember rolling my teenage eyes in driver’s education class when they told us “courtesy is contagious,” but it turns out that “social contagions,” including generosity, are real.
Each generous action we take rewires the brain for happiness and resilience, one gift at a time.
Research shows that acts of generosity actually do spread from one person to the next. In numerous studies, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis demonstrated that merely observing acts of generosity could inspire a kind of “downstream reciprocity” in others up to three degrees of separation.
It isn’t just that bringing muffins to work increases the likelihood of appreciative smiles, but it also means that those coworkers will be more likely to let that car merge in front of them on the commute home, upping the odds that they will give a little extra dessert to the kids who will then cuddle with the dog, and so on. Christakis and Fowler also found that just witnessing such generosity releases the brain’s feel-good chemicals and inspires generosity in others. Research also shows that we get boosts of serotonin (the hormone that regulates mood and anxiety), oxytocin (the “love hormone”), and dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) when we give and when we receive.
And then there are the long-term benefits of generosity to our well-being and that of our families. There is an old neuroscience adage: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Each generous action we take rewires the brain for happiness and resilience, one gift at a time. It’s been found that five generous acts a day can enhance your mood for up to a week. Donating to charity once a month adds as much happiness as a 200 percent raise, and countries with higher levels of charity have higher levels of happiness. It might seem like common sense that the recipient of generosity feels more trust, but studies also show that the giver’s brain regions associated with trust and connection light up, fostering optimism, reducing depression, and creating healthy relationships.
For the longest time, I thought generosity meant extravagant gifts, writing a check to charity, or ladling soup at a shelter. But when I considered generosity more deeply, I realized these more predictable “giving” gestures weren’t necessarily the best of what I had to offer — they weren’t what would make the biggest impact with the material and other gifts I’ve been given in my own life.
Here are three nontraditional ways of giving you and your family can practice not only during the holidays, but any time of the year:
1. Gifts of Experience: While material things are nice, when you make that gift list for the holidays, consider offering experiences (i.e. tickets to a show or museum, an art class, or even a vacation) instead of things. Research finds that experiences do more for our happiness and our relationships than things.
2. Gifts of Strength and Support: Generosity might mean giving physical or emotional support to those in need. Perhaps lending younger muscles to carry an aging neighbor’s groceries, mowing a lawn or helping a friend in a pinch.
We can give emotional support as well. Offer your hard-earned professional and life experiences through pro bono consulting to those in need, mentoring a young colleague, or helping out a new parent. Coach a team, offer to teach about your job in a classroom, or help your kid’s friends or friend’s kids who are struggling at any age.
We can also give our full attention in a world where authentic attention has become a scarce commodity. This can mean loved ones, of course, but also an authentic smile and hello to strangers in the checkout line or the airplane seat next to us. We can ask how someone’s day is going or wish them a good day, and really mean it.
3. Gifts of Wisdom: Perhaps the highest form of generosity is wisdom, which itself gives freedom. For example, we can use up our energy doing everything for our kids — no matter what their age (cooking, cleaning, financially supporting) — or we can teach them the skills they will inevitably need for independence, from dressing themselves at a young age, to learning how to advocate with teachers and caregivers as they get older, to learning to manage finances and change a tire as they reach adolescence.
In the end, generosity means action, not abstract platitudes or descriptions of cool studies. As psychologists are beginning to understand after decades of research, we cannot think our way into a new way of acting; we have to act our way into a new way of thinking. This is how our families can become the change we wish to see in the world. If we act generously and teach generosity, we all benefit as the world becomes a happier, kinder and more resilient place for future generations.
Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Christopher Willard’s new book, “Raising Resilience: The Wisdom and Science of Happy Families and Thriving Children”
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