How to Feel Great in the New Year (hint: it is not about hitting the gym)
As we reflect in the new year, many of us set intentions with the goal of increasing our health, happiness and well-being. Here is a question to explore: How generous are you? Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, teaches that generosity is one of the four pillars of well-being (the others being attention, resilience and positive outlook) – and being generous is one of the most sure-fire ways of activating positive emotions in the brain and body. Generosity comes from a sense of abundance because you are less inclined to cling tightly to whatever you have. By clinging to what you have, you miss out on the joy that you gain from being generous.
The Power of Generosity. When you consider the question of what it means to be generous, you might think of making donations to charity at the end of the year, or giving gifts on your list, maybe volunteering at school. We usually don’t think of generosity as a formidable trategy for transforming how we are in relationship to others, to ourselves and to the world we live in. We often think of being generous as a quieter, gentler, way of being. Yet generosity has the power to reach into our core and loosen the grip of attitudes and behaviors that come from fear, competition, feeling weak or not enough. Generosity is a super-power. It taps into the formidable force of what happens when you learn to let go – when you are able to part with things, time or ideas that were once “mine” and are now “yours.” Letting go is a core quality of mindfulness – an ability that comes after your capacity to see what you are attached to in the first place. When you see what you are clinging to, protecting, withholding or not sharing in some way, you can see where your growth edges are. The practice of letting go, of giving, is your secret to freedom, strength and happiness.
Small moments. One of the ways you show love in the world is by being generous. There are choice points during the day when you have the chance to give your time, your resources, your ideas – or you can look the other way. Opportunities to be generous arise in all areas of your life, such as when you receive an email asking for help, you walk by a homeless person in need, someone asks for your advice, or you get a knock on the door to buy Girl Scout cookies. Forgiving someone is an act of generosity, and the positive feelings it creates in generous forgivers reduces stress and sadness and leads to lower heart rates and blood pressure.
What gets in the way of being generous? Are you somewhat generous but have a cap? Do you think to yourself “I will give this amount or this gift if I am appreciated for this act of giving?” Or do you have a “trade-off mindset” – “If I give an hour to my relatives, I will lose “me” time? If I donate money to the school, I will lose out on something else?” Keeping a balanced budget is a good thing- but in which direction does the scale tilt? By starting to practice generosity, or noticing when you hesitate or decline, you can begin to make the invisible thoughts conscious- you start to see what you are attached to and what motivates you to take action or not. Mindfulness helps you see the thoughts that drive behaviors, and to create space to make different choices. When you become more aware of what drives you, you are freer to make choices in the daily moments where requests are made or you notice a chance to be generous.
Generosity creates happiness. In the book The Paradox of Generosity, researchers Hilary Davidson and Christian Smith demonstrate a clear-cut connection between generosity and happiness. In a study with 2,000 participants (made of 40 families in 12 different states, from all demographics) over a five-year period, the researchers looked at their spending habits and lifestyles. Participants who identified as “very happy” were those who reported volunteering for 5.8 hours per month. Those who were unhappy? Just 0.6 hours. Other findings include lower depression rates among Americans who donate more than 10 percent of their incomes (41 percent say they rarely or never experience depression versus 32 percent for everyone else.) And generosity goes beyond giving time or money. Participants who were emotionally generous in relationships – by being present and available emotionally, and through giving love – were healthier than those who were not: 48 percent to 31 percent. In their study, Davidson and Smith found nine different causal mechanisms- ranging from developing a sense of self as generous to being more socially networked to being more physically active. They report that generosity involves neurochemical changes that boost the pleasure chemistry in the brain, and give a reward for having done something good. Generosity is essential for happiness, health and well-being- benefits that money can’t buy.
Being generous is a practice. How present are you for others? Each of us have so much to give. It might be material. It might be putting down the phone and really paying attention. It might be listening without an agenda. Being more patient. Or giving your time. Forgiving someone. Donating money. In order to become more generous as a trait, according to researchers, being generous has to be sustained over time. Make it a practice – something that becomes, with repetition, who you are.