Is the old adage true — ‘tis better to give than to receive?
In this holiday season, which for many children represents an annual Get-Fest, it’s worth thinking about the virtues of giving versus receiving.
Studies have identified two forms of “giving” which, if they become habits, grow into a foundation for truly happy lives. The first is acts of generosity. By giving to others, we often become aware of our own good fortune — the blessing that we in fact possess something that can be given, including our time or energy or something material. Having a sense of our own good fortune instills the feeling of gratitude, which research has revealed to be a common element in the lives of happy people.i So whether it’s dropping part of their allowance into a Salvation Army bucket, baking cookies to bring to a housebound neighbor, or delivering retired toys to children in need, giving is one of the most reliable ways our sons and daughters can develop a sense of gratitude. (A conversation about giving and receiving often helps lubricate this process — see below.)
The second form of “giving” is expressing appreciation to others — to those who have helped or taught or inspired us. Studies have found that expressing gratitude directly to someone promotes strong and enduring feelings of happiness, especially when the expression is done in person, face-to-face.ii
December offers a perfect opportunity to foster these two forms of giving as part of your children’s repertoire. Here are two ways to approach it:
- Have your kids go through their drawers and closets collecting the toys and clothing they’ve outgrown. Help them deliver the items to social service programs or schools or pediatric units that seek such donations. (Arrange for the recipient to do more than just say “Thanks”; ask to have your child told how the merchandise will be used, and what it might mean to the recipient.)
Talk to your children about how much need is out there among kids of all ages, and ask them to imagine what it might be like for others to receive what they couldn’t come by without his or her help. Ask them to notice what they feel as they think about bringing happiness to others. If they need help, prompt them to look for feelings of gladness or pride, which would understandably attach to acts of generosity.
- As a holiday activity, have your kids identify the people who this year have helped or taught or inspired them, then ask them to consider ways they might express appreciation to those people. Handmade gifts or personally written cards are fine ways for appreciation to be expressed (being sure to avoid email, a format too ordinary for this special gesture).
Turn the holidays into a time when important life lessons can be learned that go beyond the fleeting pleasures of receiving gifts.
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i Emmons, R.A., and McCullough, M.E. Highlights from the research project on gratitude and thankfulness: Dimensions and perspectives of gratitude. www.psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/
ii Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, R.A., Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2005) Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions.American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.