We’re expected to give gifts to others during the holiday season and to even be more cheerful and helpful. So how does the act of giving that most of us are used to during the holidays affect mental health?
Perhaps mental health effects go beyond the feelings of happiness (and relief) you experience when you know a loved one is enjoying the gift you gave.
Fran Walfish, a child, teen, parent and family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child,” said in an email that giving during the holidays is an overall positive experience.
“Giving to others at any time, especially during the holiday season, affects mental health in an extremely positive way,” Walfish said. “Giving fills one's soul with a satisfied, warm feeling like after sipping a cup of hot tea. It is a calm, quiet good feeling deep inside.”
Besides supporting others through the act of giving, it can change how you feel about yourself.
“How we treat others directly targets the core of one's self-esteem,” Walfish said. “It is the best way to feel good about ourselves. And the secondary gain is that when we take the focus off of ourselves good things come back tenfold.”
Giving to others has other profound mental health effects.
“It’s more than just feeling good; it’s actually good for you,” Steve Siebold, an author of “177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class,” said in an email. “Research shows that giving affects the same part of the brain that is stimulated by sex, money and drugs.”
Stress can be relieved through giving to others as well.
“Giving makes you feel less stressed, which will allow you to communicate more effectively, able to prioritize better and just see things in a much clearer way,” Siebold said. “Being mentally healthy helps you stay physically healthy, too. Plus, you can give in so many ways; it’s not just about money. You can donate your time to a worthy cause, or donate blood, for example.”
In addition, knowing that you’re giving and not so focused on receiving can make you feel better.
“While the masses are driven from ego and are more focused on receiving gifts, you’ll feel good knowing you’re operating from a consciousness of love and abundance by helping others and making a difference,” Siebold said.
Viola Drancoli, a therapist in Los Angeles, said in an email that giving to others can help you cope with negative feelings.
“Giving to others is one of the best ways to deal with feelings of loneliness, isolation and a general lack of life satisfaction,” Drancoli said. “Volunteering, for that reason, is often recommended for patients in mental health programs. It gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and also increases awareness of others' needs, which often makes your own troubles seem less intense.”
People who do not have money to give gifts can volunteer and give their time and skills to help others.
“[Giving] also reduces depression and anxiety through interaction with others and installs a sense of purpose,” Drancoli said.
Carla Rosinski, a licensed professional counselor, said giving all-year round can have positive mental health effects, but possibly more so during the holidays because of the additional stress and pressure during that time.
“In general ... giving to others helps foster a sense of purpose and that you are contributing to change,” Rosinski said. “This helps with feelings of depression and anxiety by increasing our self esteem and sense of purpose. It also fosters a sense of community and connection, helping to reduce feelings of isolation. This has a huge effect on mental health, and there are actually physiological reasons for this. Reducing anxiety and depression through feelings of connectedness and sense of purpose helps reduce the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) produced in the body, which is great for our mental health.”
Walfish, Fran. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Siebold, Steve. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Drancoli, Viola. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Rosinski, Carla. Email interview. Dec. 20, 2011.
Reviewed December 21, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith