The holiday season, also known as the time of giving, is once again in full swing. But is it centuries of tradition that drives us to give gifts to others at this time of year, or is it perhaps something much more primal? Recently, I was intrigued by an article in the New York Times that suggests that brain chemistry and deeply ingrained instinctual drives are the true cause of the holiday spirit.
The article tells the fascinating story of a woman named Cami Walker, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. After many unsuccessful attempts to relieve the physical and mental pain that accompanies her disease, she resorted to an unusual form of therapy suggested to her by a holistic medicine specialist. The prescription was to give a gift every day for 29 days.
Although skeptical, she was desperate for relief, and decided to give it a try. The result? At the end of her treatment, test results showed that her MS had stopped progressing. She was also able to stop taking her pain medication. The effect of this “giving treatment” was so profound she decided to write a book about it, entitled “29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life” (Da Capo Press).
University studies have shown that giving to others releases endorphins in the brain. Those chemicals in turn provide us with feelings of well being and a marked reduction in stress levels. New studies now show that higher endorphin levels correlate with increased healing, and can even stymie the progress of diseases, as Ms. Walker’s case exemplifies. However, there is a converse side to this process. When we do things that cause our brains to release endorphins, instinctually we will seek out ways to continue to get that natural chemical reward. This is what the article refers to as “the giving high.”
Unfortunately, a syndrome I will call “over-giving” affects many people at Christmas time, and I believe the underlying cause of this is the unconscious thirst for the rush of endorphins that comes from giving. It is estimated that banks will earn $1.8 billion in overdraft fees during this year’s holiday season. Are these financial institutions taking advantage of the primal human drive to give - and give more than they can afford? Times are tough and everyone is under extra stress this year, which leads me to suspect that there will be a lot of overcompensating for negative feelings through over-giving.
I will be the first one to admit that I have sought relief from my troubles by shopping my sorrows away for holiday gifts. Although this practice definitely elevated my spirits, the end result is usually increased stress due to strained finances come January. Now that I am more aware of the bio-science behind giving, I can consciously channel this urge in more constructive ways. Because we are all under an inordinate amount of stress this particular holiday season, I think a wise choice would be to satisfy this increased need for endorphins by balancing gift giving with giving of yourself.
As illustrated in Ms. Walker’s book, therapeutic levels of endorphins can be attained by simply doing something kind for a stranger. You don’t have to buy a lavish gift for someone to produce the “helpers high.” You can feel just as good, if not better, by doing something simple, thoughtful, and inexpensive. Additionally, the altruism must be completely voluntary to produce the desired effects.
Ms. Walker credits her success to spending time with people, offering emotional support, and small acts of kindness. So you don’t necessarily have to run out and join the Peace Corps if you are feeling blue, all you need to do is be more patient and kind in your everyday life. You will be surprised and satisfied by both the psychological and physiological results, and perhaps avoid over doing it on presents this year!
To learn more about giving and how it can improve your overall health, visit 29gifts.org.
And to all my loyal readers, have a happy and healthy holiday season! I look forward to connecting with you at Working Women of Tampa Bay events in 2010.
You can connect with Megan Daniel on Facebook.