There was no greater sight to me as a child than colorful wrapped boxes tumbling out from under the tree, sparkling under tiny white lights. Christmas was the best day of the year- not because of family, or friends, or food- but because I got presents. Lots of them.
I promise I wasn’t as terrible as I sound- my parents were just exceptionally generous.
They bought my sister and me a ridiculous amount of things that they (or Santa) could wrap, not to shut us up or collect our gratitude, but to see that look of wonder and excitement on our soft, sleepy faces every December 25.
Generosity is buying a six-year-old a brand new bike and letting Santa take the credit.
My parents are particularly skilled in this form of generosity- they give in ways that I will never realize because they don’t expect anything in return. They give quietly, thoughtfully, and regularly. I am not sure that I can say the same about myself.
The idea of buying gifts for everyone that I know, just because it’s Christmas, always made me a little uncomfortable. Hours spent shopping for things my family and friends probably don’t need and buying it anyway felt like falling for capitalism’s greatest ploy.
This year I’m taking a different perspective- the holiday season can be an opportunity to practice generosity. Ideally, working this muscle can lead to using it more frequently throughout the year. Here’s how I’m working to feel more comfortable giving and giving, without expecting anything in return:
Generosity starts with embracing gratitude. Once we realize all that we have been given, from tangible gifts to small acts of kindness, we feel more inclined to give something back. I became emotional on my birthday this year because I was overwhelmed by my parents’ relentless generosity toward me- they haven’t tired of it throughout my quarter-century of existence. If you are well enough to be living, breathing, and reading this article, you have something to be grateful for. And you have something to give back.
Start with $10
Give away $10 today. Donate it to charity, buy someone a drink, leave it in the cap of a street performer. One of my first memories of charitable giving was in college, when my only income was the occasional babysitting gig. I donated $10 to Planned Parenthood because I saw a volunteer raising money on the sidewalk in New York. Despite the fact that $10 equated to 1 hour of playing Candy Land with a toddler, it felt good to contribute to something I cared about. Years later, I still remember how good that measly donation made me feel that day, and I definitely don’t miss that $10.
Donate your time
If you don’t have any money to spend, give up a few hours of your time to a charity or organization that you’re passionate about. If you love dogs, volunteer at an animal shelter. Are people more your thing? Maybe there’s a political campaign you could canvass for. I once spent a Saturday volunteering at a senior living center- we played games, chatted, and held a dance party- just for fun. Volunteering is more entertaining than watching TV all day, and it certainly makes you feel better than finishing an entire season of Friends.
Make someone else’s day
If you don’t know where to spend your money or your time, just focus on making someone else’s day a little better. This can be a stranger or your best friend. Consciously seek out ways in which you can improve the experience of someone around you. Maybe it’s the cashier at the grocery store who’s clearly at the end of his shift- ask him how his day is going, tell him a joke, make him feel seen. You’ll probably be the first customer who’s genuinely engaged in conversation with him all day. Recognize the humanity in people around you, take notice of what they may need to make their day better. Then step outside of yourself and into their experience to make it happen.
Giving can be simple, effective, and inexpensive (even free). Individual generosity not only triggers a ripple effect that inspires others, but it also makes you happier. When you give to others or charity, the reward or pleasure response in your brain triggers that warm, fuzzy feeling. Buying things for yourself might prompt a similar response, followed by a much less pleasant feeling in your gut (did I really just spend that much on pants?). This season, I’d encourage you to think about others ahead of yourself, and you might just discover a more meaningful reward than presents under a tree.