The Mental Health Benefits of Giving and Receiving

Perhaps no time period is more renowned for its profound benefits and equally profound challenges than the end-of-year holiday season. Mostly, we collectively perceive this season as positive: feelings of happiness, love, connection, and energy are common at this time. But, for many, the holiday season also brings reminders of difficult relationships, material stress, and short- or long-term health challenges. This is because this is a season that asks us to open our hearts, our homes, and often mandates that we put resources and effort into giving of ourselves in a number of material and immaterial ways. 

Giving so much of ourselves opens us to joy, but also stress.

When asked about elements of holiday stress, one of the most common challenges reported is the stress associated with shopping and other forms of giving – of time, attention, and material gifts, just to name a few. This can be particularly challenging when material resources are already stretched thin, leaving potential givers feeling ill-equipped to meet their own or others’ giving expectations before they even get started. And the experience of receiving – even the anticipatory experience of receiving connection, care, gifts, anything – can be completely overshadowed by the general business of the season.

While there is no sure-fire way to relieve holiday stressors, the reality is that both giving and receiving, in tangible and intangible ways, confer positive mental health benefits. Here are a few tips for capitalizing on the positive feelings that can come from giving and receiving:

  • Embrace receiving. Taking time to consciously acknowledge and remain open to the gifts of the season, whether they be connection with loved ones we don’t see very often, co-creation of meals or other kinds of shared experiences, and receiving gifts, can create positive feelings and increased enthusiasm and connection.
  • Think of meaningful gifts. Since giving, in tangible and intangible ways, is accompanied by a number of feel-good hormones that can cause the giver to experience delight, contentment, and connection, spending a little extra time thinking about gifts that are meaningful to you can really make a difference. The mental health benefits come from the internal sense of connection and delight we spontaneously make with the people we love when we are thinking about and planning for their pleasure.
  • Giving meaningfully matters more than giving big. Research consistently shows that the most valued gifts are those that have meaning to both the giver and the receiver. A custom playlist, photo compilation, or objects that have relational meaning have a more significant well-being impact for both giver and receiver than high cost gifts selected with little intrinsic meaning. Since meaningful gifts for every person on your list may be another source of stress, it’s really important to be realistic and self-compassionate.
  • Spread it out. Part of the stress of the holiday season is feeling the need to do so much in such a short period of time. Releasing yourself from obligations to accomplish everything by a certain day, even if it feels like a hard deadline (like having all gifts ready for Christmas day), can also really help.
  • Slow it down. A lot goes into making holiday gatherings special, especially those that involve gift giving. Build a ritual around gift giving and receiving. For example, if you are with loved ones and there are multiple gifts to be exchanged, open one at a time so that the giver and the receiver, as well as everyone else, can experience the emotional and feel-good chemicals that come from being a giver, a recipient, or an observer to a sweet exchange.
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