“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service
of others.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
My Grandmother Frances shouldn’t have lived as long as she did. She
was born in the generation when Ronald Reagan thought it was a good idea
to send out a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes to all his friends for Christmas.
By last count, she had beaten cancer seven times. She used to say to me,
“If you get up and pinch yourself and it hurts, that’s a good
thing. You’re still on this earth.” I believe she got up,
pinched herself, and then went out into the world to find something to
do. She was hard to track down in the days before cell phones because
she was always helping her neighbors get to their doctor’s appointments,
the post office, the grocery store or just taking them out for a good
meal. Her little, white Honda reminded me of a clown car because, although
it was a four-seater, she seemed to be able to jam about eleven septuagenarians
(people in their 70s) and requisite assistive devices into her car and
off they would go to Jinright’s, Twin Oaks or Willie’s Wee-nee
Wagon. Her longevity wasn’t due to her diet (she loved mayonnaise
on her pork chop sandwich); it was a product of having a purpose in life
and thinking about others.
The altruistic behavior of giving often takes a backseat to the self-serving
practice of getting during the holiday season. Right after Halloween,
the holiday clock starts counting down the seconds to Christmas. Thanksgiving
is but a seventh inning stretch to reframe everyone’s wish list
based on Black Friday deals. This sense of urgency makes me think of poor
Brooks Hatlen in my favorite movie, Shawshank Redemption, when he said,
“The world went and got in a big damn hurry.” Now, I don’t
think the need for “getting” is truly nihilistic behavior
like a four-year-old who wants everything on his wish list, including
a Ninja turtle that shoots atomic ooze. Instead, we all have good intentions
to give to our fellow man, woman and child. This intent undergoes a metamorphosis
into getting because shopping days are limited, wish lists must be checked
off, coworkers and friends need to be appreciated and parties attended
before the Elf-on-a-Shelf disappears on December 25th. I can already feel
my pulse quicken and blood pressure rise just thinking about all the stuff
I have to do.
To flip it around, by focusing more on others that need help and finding
a sense of purpose rather than getting for others this holiday season,
one can both give back to the community and receive personal health benefits.
Most philosophies and religions include a strong belief in giving back
to the world. Studies find that the health benefits associated with giving include:
- Lower blood pressure
- Increased self-esteem
- Less depression
- Lower stress levels
- Stronger marriage
- Longer life
- Greater happiness
I still remember when I felt inner happiness with gift giving. I had earned
some money from mowing lawns and wanted to give my mom a Christmas gift.
For whatever reason, I thought she needed a scented candle from Frederica
Station. So she dropped me off, and I spent probably thirty minutes sniffing
candles until I decided on Georgia Peach. I remember wrapping it up and
putting it right in the front of all the other presents so that she would
open it first.
During gift-giving behaviors, our brains secrete feel good chemicals such
as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin that reduce anxiety and elevate mood.
When you volunteer, you increase social interaction and expand your social
network thereby decreasing the risk of depression. Much of our mental
anguish, stress and depression are linked to worry-based self-doubt. Transferring
the focus from yourself to another person or cause will work to quiet
worry and distress the same way that meditation works to quiet the mind.
So finding a person or cause to give purpose to one’s life can have
personal health benefits. In a study out of The Lancet, having a purpose
in life was linked to longer life. Even after adjusting for things like
wealth, smoking and physical activity, those people with a high sense
of well-being and purpose had a 30 percent reduced risk of death compared
to people with a low sense of well-being and purpose.
Finding a purpose by giving back can be as easy as starting with a random
deed for a person or a cause. There is a whole compendium of wonderful
non-profit groups in our community that would love a helping hand or charitable
donation this time of the year. Being part of something larger might be
one of the best things we can do for others and ourselves. To everyone,
I hope you have a wonderful holiday that begins with taking care of yourself
and those around you in need.