This simple holiday activity could be a gamechanger for your happiness

During an incredibly challenging year, we find ourselves amid the holiday season. The holidays are always supposed to be about gratitude, giving, and love, but those sentiments feel especially prevalent in 2020 considering what humanity has been through this year. 

Nothing evokes holiday feelings and memories more than colorfully wrapped presents and gifts just waiting to be torn open. However, the tradition of holiday gift-giving also comes along with a timeless question: is it better to give or receive? 

Researchers at the University of California, Davis are presenting a fresh take on that age-old conundrum, and providing some compelling new evidence that it is indeed better to give than receive.

A series of experiments including pairs of young children and their mothers revealed that acts of generosity actually result in greater physiological feelings of calmness. So, doing good is quite literally good for you. 

Why do acts of generosity induce physical calmness? Study authors can’t say for sure, but regardless, one researcher theorizes that “being in a calmer state after sharing could reinforce the generous behavior that produced that good feeling.”

Moreover, children who had been raised by an especially compassionate and empathetic mother were more willing to engage in acts of kindness themselves. The term “paying it forward” is used quite a bit nowadays, but these findings certainly serve to validate that line of thinking. Doing something nice for someone else often encourages that person to do something kind for another, just like how these children responded to their mother’s kindness with some generosity of their own.

To start, 74 preschool-aged (four years old) children and their mothers took part in the first phase of the study. While a monitor kept track of each child’s heart rate, the kids were told they would partake in various activities/games and earn tokens that could then be exchanged for toys and prizes. After every child had earned 20 tokens, they were told they could donate some or all of their tokens to another child who was too sick to play the games. 

Meanwhile, the children’s mothers filled out a series of surveys measuring their level of compassion during day-to-day life. Moms had to rate their agreeability with statements like “I would rather engage in actions that help my child than engage in actions that would help me,” “Those whom I encounter through my work and public life can assume that I will be there if they need me,” and “I would rather suffer myself than see someone else (a stranger) suffer.”

Then, two years later, the same mom-child pairs were invited to take part in another round of the same experiment. The only difference being that this time the kids were told they would be donating their tokens to another child unable to play due to a nonspecific “hardship.” Of the original 74 pairs, 54 returned for the second half of the study.

All in all, the results indicate that a child is most likely to engage in giving behavior if he or she was raised by a compassionate mother and showed the physiological benefits of kindness (calmness).

“At both ages, children with better physiological regulation and with mothers who expressed stronger compassionate love were likely to donate more of their earnings,” says Paul Hastings, UC Davis professor of psychology and the mentor of the doctoral student who led the study, in a release

“Compassionate mothers likely develop emotionally close relationships with their children while also providing an early example of prosocial orientation toward the needs of others,” researchers write.

The team at UCD says these two different but collaborative factors (mothers’ compassionate love/physiological regulation) act as “internal and external supports for the capacity to act prosocially that build on each other.”

So, there you have it. Generosity toward others may just provide more calmness and stress relief this holiday season than anything you unwrap yourself – and isn’t just a little bit less stress the number one item on all of our wish lists this year?

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Psychology.