- Mindfulness -

The Thoughtful Gift

Conscious gift giving can bring you more joy this holiday season.

Couple opening a card

The first Sunday of every December, Kay Herbst throws a holiday party. She decks out her Victorian townhouse in downtown Boston with lights and decorations, provides a generous buffet, and brings in a piano player so guests can sing carols. Often, more than 100 people show up to enjoy the festivities.

But instead of encouraging her guests to bring a bottle of wine or a hostess gift that would only gather dust, Herbst asks them to consider writing a check to Project Bread, a Massachusetts organization that feeds the hungry. Each year, she raises thousands of dollars for the nonprofit.

“My holiday party lives in me and motivates me all year long,” she says. “It’s exciting to tally up the proceeds at the end of the party — I imagine how a family might be feeling after receiving aid and being relieved, at least momentarily, of the burdens of hunger.”

The importance of the gesture is not lost on her holiday revelers. “My guests tell me that the party is especially meaningful to them,” she says. “They can come and enjoy the party knowing they’re enhancing the quality of life for people less fortunate than they are.”

Sometimes the holiday season seems like an endless swirl of buying, wrapping and feigning joy after receiving an unwanted trinket. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A more conscious approach to gift giving, such as making charitable donations, can bring more happiness and meaning to the season by honoring your values, bringing you closer to friends and family, and making a real difference in the world.

The Joys of Charitable Giving

Every day, we’re bombarded by messages encouraging us to buy stuff, but the consumeristic propoganda becomes especially intense during the holidays. And it works: Americans, on average, spend about $800 a month more in November and December than in any other months. But too often, our holiday shopping sprees spread relatively little joy — to those who receive the gifts or to those who give them.

A study conducted by Tim Kasser, PhD, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., indicated that those who emphasize materialism at Christmas were far less likely to be happy than those who didn’t. “It’s easy to buy into the message that part of your worth as a person depends upon the things you own,” says Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2002). “We all compare ourselves to others, and there’s always someone who has something better.”

One thing that can make us happier, however, is helping others. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School found that people who donated as little as $5 to a worthy cause were happier than those who spent money on themselves. And those who donate their time or money to charities are significantly more likely to report being very happy with their lives than those who don’t. “Giving improves our self-esteem — it can actually make us feel better about ourselves,” explains Golden Gate University marketing professor Michal Ann Strahilevitz, PhD, who researches the psychology of charitable giving.

Involve the Whole Family

With nearly a million charities in the United States, we have plenty of choices about how to direct our generosity. That said, you’ll find the most joy and meaning if your giving reflects your values — and if you can get your whole family involved.

When selecting good causes as a family, focus on efforts that have an overtly positive, meaningful and easily understood charter, suggests Strahilevitz. If something seems too abstract, scary or overwhelming — even if it’s a great cause, like curing cancer or stopping global warming — younger kids aren’t likely to fully understand the benefits of their donation, and as a result they probably won’t experience as much satisfaction. “You want them to look back at the experience in a way that will make them want to give again next year,” Strahilevitz explains.

Leigh Merinoff’s son, Andrew, was just 8 when he became fascinated by a catalog from Heifer International, an organization that allows donors to buy specific animals — goats, ducks and rabbits, for example — to help support and sustain needy families around the world.

Merinoff, who lives in Bergen County, N.J., encouraged his interest. “Every single Christmas he would ask for and get money toward [Heifer] from his aunts and uncles,” she recalls. After Andrew had saved enough to buy an “ark” — a gift of dozens of different animals — his excitement was palpable. “The second he had all the money, he was insistent on sending it off,” she says. “He had worked so hard.”

Helping kids connect the holidays to something beyond their own wish list helps them grow their understanding of other people’s circumstances, expand their compassion and see their own good fortune in a new, less materialistic light. “Kids can easily get into the mindset that the holiday season is just about presents and toys and what they’ll be getting,” says Strahilevitz. “But when you ask them how they might be able to help other people this season, too, it creates a nice balance.”

Enjoy the Benefits

Generosity may start small, but it can build into something much bigger. Giving of time or money can become an annual holiday tradition, a regular activity throughout the year, or a launching pad to larger giving goals.

Herbst began donating to Project Bread more than 20 years ago, and she participates in a charity walk every spring to raise awareness of the cause. This consistent involvement with the organization eventually persuaded her to start her holiday party in 2003, which has raised far more money for the organization than she could manage herself.

Merinoff, meanwhile, says her whole family has stayed involved in Heifer; they’ve even visited villages in Honduras and Peru during “Pass On” ceremonies where the organization delivers animals to needy families. “There is dancing, laughing and celebration throughout the day. Everyone is touched, because you can literally see poverty dissipating,” she says. “It creates an enormous sense of optimism, and it’s a great way for the family to start the holidays. What kind of hat or scarf can compare to that?”

Erin Peterson is a writer in Minneapolis.

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