We tell our kids that it’s better to give than to receive, and that the holidays are a time of love, peace, and joy. But this may not be exactly the message they receive when they see us fighting for parking spots at the mall, getting all snippy as we wait in line at the post office, and frantically rushing around to every Toys R Us in a 50-mile radius to find that must-have toy of the season.

It would appear that giving is stressful and takes a lot of hard work!

Or is giving really all that it’s cracked up to be?

A gift

I worked with an interesting individual several years ago who was going through a tough time. He was quite an interesting person, very kind and thoughtful. However, he felt stuck and unappreciated at work, had a myriad of serious and chronic health concerns, no social life or family to speak of, and was mired in a difficult financial situation. Worst of all, things had been this way for years, and there didn’t seem to be much chance of anything changing.

One day, he presented me with a book that he said he hoped I’d like.

Coming from someone who could barely afford gas to drive to work some weeks, it was a very touching gift.

In fact, the book was called 29 Gifts, written by a 35-year old Los Angeles woman named Cami Walker about her battle with multiple sclerosis.

It all starts when a friend gives Cami an unconventional prescription in the midst of her struggle with cycles of excruciating pain, muscle weakness, fatigue, blurred vision, vertigo, depression, and episodes of psychosis. A prescription that changes her life despite her initial resistance.

What was this prescription?

To give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

29 days of altruism

Ranging from giving her cat a nice belly rub, to keeping a friend company as she waited for her ride to arrive, to buying some tacos for a stranger, the gifts were not extravagant, but crucially, all were given with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

And while Cami’s giving did not magically cure her MS or wipe away all of her problems, it did change her experience of life in many deep and meaningful ways, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually:

“It is easier for me to laugh and smile. Fun is easier to find. I am more in awe of the people around me and tend to notice their good qualities rather than their “flaws.”

I’m actually engaged in life again instead of just tolerating it. I’m showing up in the world in a different way, and that has dramatically improved my relationships…

Before, most of my energy and time had been going to a lack, to what I wasn’t capable of. Instead of staring down that empty path and bemoaning my fate, I began looking at little new paths that seemed to be magically unfolding in front of me. To my utter surprise, they took me away from that empty place and toward a new one I hadn’t been able to imagine. I no longer feel a burning need to know exactly what is coming next in my life, nor do I feel the need to control everything anymore.”

The benefits of giving

As it turns out, psychologists such as Stanford professor Sonja Lyubomirsky have been studying happiness and the benefits of altruistic behavior for some time.

It seems that we do experience an increase in happiness and well-being when we give – although it may be slightly more complex than at first glance. In one of Lyubomirsky’s studies for instance, performing five random acts of kindness per week for six weeks increased participants’ well-being. However, this was the case only for those who performed all five acts in a single day. Those who spread out their acts of kindness over the course of a week didn’t experience an uptick in well-being.

Take action

1. Read more about the altruism debate (i.e. does altruism exist, or are we ultimately just acting in self-interest?), and get a few suggestions on acts of kindness you can try today: Kindness and the Case for Altruism

2. Try performing five random acts of kindness in a single day this week. Think of it as a trial run, and see how it feels.

3. Learn more about the 29 Gifts movement, and consider signing up.

The one-sentence summary

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”  ~Ghandi

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc