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20 November 2013

Living Organic: How Holiday Giving Promotes Year-Long Health

In my family, we adults finally gave up on giving each other presents on Christmas. We only instituted this change to save money on “unnecessary stuff” passed amongst each other.

But did we deprive ourselves of something important besides sweaters and ties?

We didn’t think so….The younger generation receives the loot, and the adults sit back and let them enjoy the unwrapping and the playing.

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But who has the better end of the bargain, after all?

It seems that the children, actually, are getting the least of the exchange.

It has actually been shown that giving is better for your health than receiving. However, we would be slightly off to think that the value of giving is in the gift itself.

Instead, the value lies in the meaning of the gift, the value of the giver and receiver, and the act of giving itself.

Whether our holidays have fallen into bad habits in regards to commercialization of Christmas (and Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, you name it), there is much underlying commonality between past and present, and the inherent benefits of swapping presents.

Society Values an Occasion to Give

It is obvious that holidays and celebrations have a way of releasing us from our worries and cares, if only for a time.

A time to “let loose” is built in to our natural physical rhythms and mental needs. Yearly events are all ways to shift our collective energy by actually releasing built-up stress. Some of that relief comes from reconnecting with each other in a more communal way and feeling a sense of having a greater purpose.

Perhaps normal life would be described as the routine of striving for a good life on an individual basis, but rather, the holidays are a time to be fully connected to our community and loved ones.

So, Where Do We Belong?

I tend to agree with the sociological theory that for a community to maintain a common identity, rituals will exist, which serve to remind the individuals of their common beliefs. If we have gotten away from having one common identity in the developed world (if we ever had one), I believe the rituals of holiday gift-giving return us to our sense of being part of the greater human community.

It’s safe to say that one way we can connect to our humanity is by singing and dancing, as most celebrations encourage. Eating together is clearly another primary ritual of holidays, especially as families become less apt to sit down for the daily meals.

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Another basic ritual is to exchange gifts, something that we have not incorporated into our usual routine. It’s interesting to observe that most holidays do not involve gift-giving, except birthdays, Christmas and Hanukkah.

This leads me to believe, even more, that resetting our mental focus is important, because we commemorate birth, (or “new beginnings”) with giving gifts.

Personal Giving

There are multiple illustrations of how giving is primary to our social being as we seek the roots of the act.

Gift giving is first and foremost an evolution of nurturance, an extension of providing for our family and neighbors.

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When material wealth was less pronounced, and in places where it still is, parting with a prized object was a powerful way to show the recipient that you valued them, thus forming community. The gift itself had value, and presumably you are willing to part with it because your recipient is valued even higher. This kind of sacrifice showed great respect and alliance.

Giving has its roots in hospitality as well.  

In some cultures you were expected to treat your guests as better than family, and sometimes even a beggar deserved the best meal you could provide. So as an extension of this “good neighbor” hospitality, we still pass on the message that giving is associated with being a good person through our rituals.

For some, especially at holidays, a concept of God or a higher power, as a generous provider, is tied into gift giving.

We value our high power, who provides the entire earth for us, and for our lives, and so we offer a gift to another person to honor our respect for our spiritual guide. Faith in a “higher power” is known to be a contributor to lower stress and better immune function for a longer and healthier life.

These are just a few broad reasons that gift-giving reinforces our own social identities…But what about the psychology of giving?

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

William Arthur Ward

Being appreciative of a gift, we say thank you to the giver. But it goes the other way around, too. When giving, we show or demonstrate our gratitude for the person to whom we give.

Gratitude is a quality that is known to release good-feeling chemicals in the brain. New philosophies based in physics believe that energy vibrations of gratitude and love can be physically healing to the body. Put simply, we feel better when we give.

From an anatomical standpoint, our heart’s blood supply increases, “feel good” hormones flood the brain, and we get that “healthy glow”. Studies of depression even cite that people who have a purpose outside themselves recover faster and more completely from bouts of their illness.

Heartfelt Giving Releases Fear – Explaining Mr. Scrooge

I suggest also that when we give gifts, we reassert our freedom from constricting belief in scarcity.

It’s in our mindset: Thinking we don’t have enough can prevent us, most of the time, from sharing what we do have, no matter the reality of our situation. As damaging as it is to our spirit to feel we cannot give, it’s in inverse proportion to how great we feel when we do give.

So, a holiday with a tradition of giving is a reminder that we do, if we really believe it, have enough to share. Our sense of well being then increases with the security of acting out that truth.healthy4

Shop Early and Often

There is a dark underbelly of giving as well, which I personally look straight in the eye at holiday time: Obligation.

My fear of forgetting someone important to me, and having a deadline by which to be generous, is immense pressure! To be honest, I resent it sometimes. Even if my intentions are the best, if I don’t find a gift they will love by December 24th, I press myself with shame. It has the effect to take away the many benefits I have stated above. This negative effect is the main reason my family chose to forego the yearly gift requirement.

So I guess there is a reason to shop early, or continually all year and not to procrastinate. Gifts given in the spirit of obligation do not always convey love and respect, as I believe they can if chosen in a joyful spirit.

Giving and Giving Back

Let us not forget that gifts aren’t the only things we can give, especially at holiday time. Time itself is an offering with just as many rewards to the giver.  

Volunteer opportunities abound at Christmas, as homeless shelters, soup kitchens and children’s charities like Toys for Tots step up their efforts to make sure none are left out of the community. Charitable events can be found to spend time with, and to donate to. Silent Auctions are an amazing place to find unique gifts and do good at the same time. And taking time for yourself is a gift that benefits others, as well!

The holidays are not the only time of the year for especially good cheer, but it is important to make a special effort from time to time. If we are slow to reflect on our lives and the impact of our actions (as most Americans are), “checking in” on our own good will and level of gratitude can reset our compasses.  If being too detailed and focused brings us out of balance, pulling back and seeing the big picture is of benefit to regain it.

One of the best gifts you can give yourself is to lower your stress, and with that, we have more energy to set our world aright.

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