Giving to Receive: How to Decrease Stress this Holiday Season

By Dr. Liz Chamberlain

With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season upon us, not surprisingly, many of us experience an increase in stress. Although our purpose in celebrating the season is often to give gifts of love and appreciation to people in our lives, sometimes we feel more overloaded as we pack more things to do into our already full days. The added pressure of buying gifts, entertaining, attending or participating in events, traveling, and concluding work or school projects before the end of the year can make us feel overwhelmed. Sometimes the pressure of how the holidays are “supposed to be” can also create more anxiety and can lead to disappointment or resentment.

Acknowledging that the holidays can feel stressful is the first step in making the stress a little smaller and more manageable.  Taking action to reduce the stress is the next logical step – but how?  If we can’t add more hours into the day or limit our commitments, what can we do?  Researchers suggest the key may be reaching out and giving more of ourselves to others.

Researchers suggest the key may be reaching out and giving more of ourselves to others.

When we’re already feeling pressed for time and money at the holidays, it may seem counterintuitive to think that investing more of our resources could reduce stress – how is this possible? In fact, many studies support the idea that giving rather than receiving is the key to increasing positive emotions. A study published by S. Katherine Nelson and colleagues (2016) suggests that investing time and resources in altruistic or prosocial giving can decrease negative emotions, increase positive emotions and support “psychological flourishing” (Nelson et al, 2016). Another study conducted by Jorge Moll and colleagues in 2006 shows how acts of kindness and giving can boost feel-good hormones and activate areas in the brain that create a “warm glow” (Moll, 2006).  Other research from Michael Norton at Harvard Business School in 2008 suggests that earning more money does not influence happiness unless we are intentionally spending a percentage of that money on others. Finally, the act of giving by itself can often spark feelings of gratitude – and research by Robert Emmons & Michael McCullogh in 2003 supports that simply thinking about being grateful can decrease stress and increase well-being.

Here are a few simple ideas to help activate the cascade of positive emotions that can counteract the stress of the season – and by doing them, you might just end up helping yourself:

  • Volunteer an hour or two at your favorite charitable organization – it may also offer opportunity for greater social connection (another way to increase positive emotion and decrease negative emotion).
  • Donate to a cause or charity to which you feel connected, or you feel is important to your values.
  • Perform an act of kindness (perhaps cooking a warm meal, doing a chore, letting them know you can pick something up at the store) for a neighbor who may be elderly, limited in functioning, or without family nearby. Or, do the same for an elderly relative.
  • Choose and donate a toy to a charitable organization for children.
  • Express appreciation and gratitude to others in your life – family, friends, people at work or school. Try to share specific things for which you are grateful. You can write them in a card or note, share them face-to-face, or give a small gift that reflects who they are.
Anschutz Health and Wellness Center