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As we count our blessings at Thanksgiving and during the holidays, most of us realize how abundant our lives are and how lucky we are to have food on the table, a warm home, clean water and a safe living environment. As we open our hearts and feel the heightened spirit of friendliness and camaraderie in the air, we feel more expansive, more willing to smile at a stranger, more willing to be patient and forgiving. It is in this spirit that we remember giving just feels good. Evidence of this lies in the annual spike in giving during the holidays.
Not only does giving feel good, it is good for our physical and mental health. Research in neuroscience and psychology shows that helping others raises the level of our "feel good hormones" and activates the same part of the brain that lights up when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. These good feelings have been labeled the "helper's high." In one experiment at Harvard Business School, all participants were given a certain sum of money. One half was told to spend the money on themselves and the other half to spend the money on others. Those who spent the money on others rated their happiness level significantly higher than those who spent the money on themselves.
Conversely, focusing solely on ourselves, or a preoccupation with self, is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression. When you do something for someone else, that state of self-focus immediately dissolves. This is also referred to as "getting out of oneself." As a personal example, one Thanksgiving I was attending college away from Juneau and unable to return home for the holiday. Feeling lonely and sorry for myself, it occurred to me to volunteer at the local Salvation Army delivering Thanksgiving meals to those who received Meals on Wheels. Hands down, that was the best and most memorable Thanksgiving I've ever experienced.
The benefits we get from giving to others and practicing compassion are rooted in our neurobiology, but there are ways we can cultivate these feelings. Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation increase our feelings of expansiveness, compassion and the desire to give to others. Have you noticed that you are more likely to hold a door for someone after a church service, a yoga class or a calming walk in nature? One of the main principles of any spiritual path is acting in a loving way towards others, and these spiritual practices increase our natural desire to give. Giving service is a way of putting our beliefs and values into action, a way of giving "feet to our faith."
So, as we go through the holidays and on into the new year, let's think about maintaining a feeling of generosity, of continuing to cultivate the habit of thinking about and giving to others. Ask the universal source of love, whatever that may mean to you, what you can do in your daily life to give love and compassion to others. We don't need to join a yoga ashram or dedicate our lives to selfless service. Each day provides countless opportunities to give to others in some way. Smile at the grocery store clerk even though you had to wait in line for a while. Spend time listening to someone who needs to be heard. Write a personal note to someone letting them know they are in your thoughts. Begin to forgive someone you've struggled with. Begin to forgive yourself. By increasing our feelings of generosity and compassion through our intentions and spiritual practices, we help ourselves and others.
Wendy Hamilton is a Clergy member of Eckankar, the Religion of the Light and Sound of God.