I love this meme: “I hate when people ask me if I’m ready for Christmas. No, Susan, I’m not even ready for today!”

Well, sigh! It’s that time of year. The frantic, hustle and bustle of the Holidays. Whether it’s the dread of slogging our way through an overcrowded shopping mall, the ordeal of picking out the right gifts, the frustration over delivery delays, the risk of it turning out to be not what you bargained for online, or the blow to the paycheck, shopping for holiday gifts can be stressful.

My friend asked me the dreaded question that every adult never knows how to answer:“What do you want for Christmas?” What do I want? What I really want is a million dollars and a villa off the coast of Spain. You know they are asking because it’s easier than risking that awkward moment when you open the three-pack of mock turtlenecks your aunt Vivian gave you, while feigning a half smile and performing the classic line “Ohhhh, just what I always wanted.”

So, what’s your answer? It has to be within their budget, of course — but nothing is affordable anymore. We don’t really want another thing — another tchotchke that will someday end up on a shelf in a Goodwill store or possibly, for purely sentimental reasons, get dragged around in a box to be put in your attic or expensive storage facility every time you move. Many of us adults might say, “I don’t want anything, just your company.” Which is probably true, but not really satisfactory to the gift giver. What’s the point of it all? Shouldn’t the holiday season simply be about family, friends, and food? And wouldn’t everyone be better off spending their own money on things they know they want? The truth is, there is more to the gift giving than the obligations of tradition. The act of receiving may be just as much a gift as the giving.

According to Psychology Today:

Studies show that spending money on others feels better than splurging on ourselves. In fact, neuroscientists have found that making a donation makes the brain’s reward circuitry light up more than receiving a gift. Moreover, the joy of giving a gift lasts longer than the fleeting pleasure of accepting it. Dec 24, 2021

Turns out there a neurobiological basis for cooperation in personal and relational exchanges! Studies show that gift offering far exceeds the immediate bonds of kinship, even when no material or reputation gains are anticipated. The act of gift giving releases endorphins and dopamine within your brain. These natural chemicals are part of the body’s reward system, and are designed specifically to make you feel good. Nov 3, 2014

The studies show that the mesolimbic reward system, triggered when giving, is the same area of the brain that distributes the dopamine chemicals associated with receiving money and food. It’s the system that delivers dopamine to the nucleus accumbens (NAc), part of the neural circuit that controls reward-seeking in response to reward-predictive cues. The act of giving modulates reward and pleasure in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained.

In other words, we literally get as much feeling of reward when we give as when we receive money. So the act of giving, then, is truly a natural high.

Furthermore, consider that this time of year can offer us more pleasure when we participate in activities like volunteering and providing assistance to friends or family members. According to an NIH study, “When you give money to a cause you believe in, your brain activity changes, which can bring on a wide range of benefits, including everything from lower blood pressure to a lower mortality rate.”

Remarkably, more anterior sectors of the prefrontal cortex, known to promote higher cognitive functions such as task management and planning, are distinctively engaged when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.

Sounds to me like giving in general makes you happier, healthier, smarter, and more organized. And if researching and writing this Holiday article makes you feel a little bit better about giving this season, then this is my gift to you. And hey, I do feel a little bit smarter and a lot more joyful in giving it. We wish you and all your loved ones a fruitful and joyous Holiday season!

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