The holidays are a joyous time of year, between reconnecting with loved ones, delicious foods, exciting events, and exchanging gifts. Humans are social creatures, and our basic instinct is to help others. Gift-giving is a staple of many holiday traditions, and this kindness not only increases your connection with others but can also change your brain for the better.
Kindness increases self-esteem and compassion, and those who are continually generous have more sustained happiness over time. Any time you step out of yourself to give to another, the brain lights up with a rush of neurotransmitters. Generosity and empathy boost neurotransmitters that make you feel happy for longer. Serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine are ‘happy hormones’ that boost your mood. Dopamine makes the related act much more pleasurable and entices your brain to repeat the behavior in the future.
Dopamine is related to motivation and pleasure and helps regulate learning, movement, and emotions, changing the brain on a cellular level. It encourages the person to seek rewarding behavior again, which is why people will continue to seek out all kinds of new experiences. Even negative experiences increase dopamine levels, such as risky thrills and addictive drugs. The benefit to seeking out thrills and new experiences is that people can see potential threats as a challenge, and this mindset buffers against life’s stressors.
According to research, a person’s happiness doesn’t decline (or declines much more slowly) if the person repeatedly gives to others. A study at the University of Chicago randomly assigned participants to spend $5 per day on the same thing, either for themselves or others (such as leaving a tip at the same cafe or donating online). The group that spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness. In contrast, those who gave to others reported a similar level of joy on each of the five days.
Generosity doesn’t have to be limited to the holidays. Ask yourself, “How can I practice kindness today?”. All kinds of giving will give your brain a boost, whether it’s gifting, donating time or money, or even just offering a smile. Hold the door open for others, volunteer your time to your favorite cause, or offer a compliment to a stranger. You can also practice gratitude and kindness with yourself. People tend to be very self-critical, so take the time to give yourself positive pep talks as you practice giving the gift of happiness.