A Healthy Dose of Kindness and Gratitude Buffers Holiday Blues
For me, the best part of the holiday season is hearing stories about random acts of kindness, altruism, and gratitude. Last year, I heard a story about a woman who decided to give a random act of kindness to her family and friends, all 52 of them. She wrote the names of everyone she knew on small squares of paper, folded them, and put them in a jar. Every week of the year, she conducted a “Random Act of Kindness Lottery” drawing. Then she went about the enjoyable task of calling that person and notifying that he or she was the winner! The winner would receive a random act of kindness like: free babysitting, homemade brownies, a poem, or washing a dog. What a clever idea. Just writing about this idea lifts my spirits!
It feels good to give and to receive. Humans are evolutionarily wired for reciprocity. Without it, we would not have survived as a species. Studies about giving and receiving indicate that it is actually feels better to give rather than receive. Why? Because generosity and gratitude are transformative virtues. When exercised, these virtues take us outside of ourselves to a place where we feel a part of something larger, a network of relationships that are mutually reciprocal. Feeling gratitude requires that we recognize our dependency on others and accept that we need to receive things we cannot provide for ourselves.
Positive psychologists have studied these and other virtues extensively. Several years ago, Martin Seligman and his team of researchers conducted a randomized, placebo controlled study where 577 participants were asked to write letters of gratitude to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked. Before and after the exercise, they were given assessment scales that measured their individual levels of contentment and depression. Participants were told that the exercise was not guaranteed to make them happier and that they might be assigned a placebo exercise. The results of this study indicated that people who wrote gratitude letters and presented them to their recipients had increased levels of well-being for 30 days. Caffeine is a mood elevator but a letter of gratitude can last a month!
In the same study, other participants were assigned the task of writing down three things that went well that day and their causes every night for one week. The results indicated that participants sustained elevated levels of happiness and decreased levels of depressive symptoms for six months. Counting our blessings everyday is a simple and significant way to practice a healthier outlook on life and buffer depression during the hectic holiday season.
On a personal note, my husband and I share the “Three Good Things” exercise every day, as we have become addicted to the joy we experience from this simple exercise. I love hearing about what went well for him through the course of a regular work day and he enjoys listening to the good stuff that happens to me. Occasionally, when I’m in a sour mood or feeling deflated, my husband quietly asks that I tell him about three things that went well for me that day. Inevitably, I begrudgingly tell him, and just making the effort to think of the three things changes my outlook for the better.
Happiness is contagious and it can be a vicarious positive emotion, too. Think about it, aren’t you delighted when something good happens to someone you love? I call that “joycarious” – the combination of joy and vicarious. So have a “joycarious” holiday and new year. And remember, be kind, practice gratitude, and count your blessings every day!
Lisa Jacobson, MAPP
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