Giving Mindfully

by Dave Evans, LCPC, Psychotherapist Clinical Care Consultants

Research Indicates That Giving Increases The Size of Your Heart By Up To 300% In One Day

Is that really true? Well…according to Dr. Seuss, it is, based on anecdotal accounts and eyewitness testimony about…uh, the Grinch.

Holiday Season 2019 is upon us. We are at the beginning of a 6-week series of cultural events which have the potential to be…stressful. Amidst the joy, frustration, excitement, shopping, family dynamics, and exhaustion that the holidays represent, there is a ritual practice most of us engage in known as gift giving. Most of us also know that this gift giving custom, while sometimes fun and exciting, can also be expensive, nerve-wracking, tedious, and maybe…overwhelming. Please read on for ideas and strategies that may make your holidays a bit cheerier and healthier.

Mindful Giving is Good…For You

Studies don’t all show that generosity and giving to others will increase the size of your heart by 300%, but they do seem to confirm the notion that givers are affected positively at least as much as recipients of the gift. Mental Floss and Money Crashers’ online publications offer numerous positive effects of giving on health and well-being, some of which are: longer life expectancy, more subjective happiness, greater sense of life purpose and satisfaction, and improved physical health markers (including lower blood pressure and stress test ratings, better cognitive functioning, and less chronic pain).

One study found that altruism can be “contagious,” and that volunteering and giving promotes more positive social behavior in children and teenagers. The Mental Floss article also emphasizes “when we acknowledge what we’ve received, we open up to sharing what it means to be human…a fully human life is possible only for those whose hearts are big and full.”                                                         

Giving and Motivation

There are many aspects of gift giving, and also many reasons why we do it to excess.

How does a practice that seems so benevolent become a problem? My guess is that some of the reasons have to do with being unconscious in our giving. It can be helpful to contemplate what you’re giving, why you’re giving, who you’re giving it to, and how you’re doing the giving. This is giving mindfully – being more conscious, more aware of our impulse, our desire, and even our need for doing things for others.

A few years ago, I started noticing feeling compelled to get gifts for people even when I had exceeded my budget, and realized I was taking on a lot of stress attempting to make others happy. Some soul searching revealed that I was focused more on perceiving others’ enjoyment than on my own limits, and seeking to earn their approval (and yes, I did talk to my therapist about it!). Often times, we participate in gift giving without much reflection. According to a 2017 TD Bank survey, 76% of Americans reported overspending during the holidays. And the average amount overspent? $263.00. That’s a lot of money! This holiday season is a great time to experiment with “mindful consumption,” that is, saying “no” to the internal pressure that says you must keep shopping more, buying more, and giving more.

Effects of Giving on the Brain

Our emotions and our brains actually change when we focus our attention and truly engage with something we care about. The experience of giving with an intention to help another triggers brain chemistry along the mesolithic pathway, an area which recognizes rewarding stimuli. Dr. Stephen Post, a researcher at New York’s Stonybrook University studies altruism and generosity. In the May 5, 2015 edition of US News and World Report, Dr. Post states that philanthropy, or giving to others, elicits “several different happiness chemicals, including dopamine, endorphins…and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity, or inner peace.” US News also reported even pleasurable thoughts of giving, and the voluntary intention to give also elicits a similar positive neurological response.

Effects of Giving on Emotions/Happiness

Money Crunchers reports that giving and awareness of the effects of a gift will often create action to further help the person or cause being contemplated.  Our emotions also change when we focus our attention and truly engage with something we care about. When we practice this intently, we let go of our endless stream of thoughts, worries, plans, and imaginary dialogue. They fade into the background – and we can feel calm and less pressured. In-between crossing your shopping list off, try taking a few minutes of breathing, savoring, or spending time outdoors which can make a remarkable difference in your day – and on your level of stress.

Effects of Giving on Quality of Life

Conscious awareness of our giving enhances the value of what we give, and how we experience the effects of our desires to give. If our intentions, thoughts, and actions change us, believing in generosity toward self and others may transform our giving and our view of why and how we are giving to others. Choosing to lighten our holiday overload is an act of self-care and relates to being able to love and accept ourselves. We may be able to truly experience the emotional meaning of what our cultural holidays celebrate: love, hope, gratitude, and the many gifts we have that money can’t buy. Giving also affects our sense of meaning, value, and purpose in life, and these intrinsic qualities are very important to knowing who we are and why we behave the way we do.

While these ideas are beneficial, not all of them will meet everyone’s unique needs for understanding their holiday stress. If you’re not comfortable sharing with a friend or family member, talking to a therapist can be a relief from difficult emotions of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger, and grief which are sometimes hidden beneath our holiday coping strategies.

What changes could make this season of giving more meaningful and less difficult for you? How can you create new practices that will help you to enjoy and savor the holidays – and not just endure them? May this season be one of conscious giving for you.

“If you give, you begin to live…you get the world…”     ~ David J. Matthews ~

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