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The Giving Season: Are We Getting It Right?

In December each year, Christendom anticipates the celebration of Jesus’ birth, with the belief that the greatest gift of all was given when God sent His son in the flesh to dwell among us.

Although there are varying accounts of how exchanging gifts became part of the Christmas tradition (n.b., others also have gift giving traditions around this same time), there is no doubt it is now a common and expected phenomenon.  And while adults proceed with their gift buying for each other and the children reflexively, my seven-year-old daughter asks the obvious question:  “If it is Jesus’ birthday, why are we giving gifts to each other and not to Jesus?”  Explaining our actions as the imitation of the giving shown by the three wise men, or by reflecting on how giving to others demonstrates our gratitude for the love we have received, only gets us so far.

Furthermore, in the West, the traditions surrounding gift-giving have become quite commercial, with entire days dedicated to the focus of material giving—Black Friday and Cyber-Monday being perhaps the best examples.  Non-profits have tried to balance the scales with “Giving Tuesday” to remind everyone that when showing love it is best not stop with family and friends, but still, there is something a bit off in the connection between much of how Christmas gift-giving occurs, and the meaning such giving is intended to convey.

The Psychology Of Giving

The act of giving to others and the desire to share is best understood in psychological theory from the viewpoint of the Positive Psychology movement.  Pioneer researcher in the field Martin Seligman reflects on how the orientation of the self toward another inherent in giving [1] is captured by the virtues of kindness, generosity, care, compassion and altruistic love.  The reason human persons pursue these virtues (from a natural, scientific perspective) is that they lead to helping behaviors which, when not based on reciprocity, not only bring benefits to the recipient of the goodwill, but bring benefits to the giver as well.  Giving provides an opportunity for a person to turn the focus outward [2], decreasing any temptation to self-focus or seek self-satisfaction.  This healthy focus on others enhances relationship quality and produces enduring positive emotional states.

Of course, we must draw a distinction between the altruistic giving above and manipulative giving where the good of the giver is the driving force and any benefits to others are simply collateral.

Current Challenges Abound

While the positive benefits of altruism and associated virtues would seem to make holiday gift-giving uncomplicated, current trends in much of western culture stir the pot.  Not so long ago, families gathered around the hearth to share a hot beverage and a sweet, while exchanging thoughtful gifts which were chosen based on intimate contact with each other throughout the year.  Research [3] confirms that there is an enormous sense of satisfaction that comes with seeing an expression on the face of the receiver of a gift which expresses appreciation for, and acknowledgement of, a thoughtful choice.

Now, however, the mobility of family members, the pace of life, the endless options, and the ease of transport have changed the landscape of gift giving for many.  Now, people can feel compelled to purchase gifts as a way of trying to feel or regain a connection (without putting in the sweat equity of actually cultivating and nurturing a true relationship).  Depending upon the time and distance apart, such gifts become either risky guesses, or default to the vaunted gift card, which, while allowing the recipient to receive what he or she wants most, lacks the meaningful interpersonal exchange that brings true intimacy to relationships.

Some researchers [4] have explored alternatives to material gifts, such as giving the gift of an experience.  They found that such gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts, regardless of whether or not the gift is consumed together.

This research supports the natural truth that what is really sought by persons from those whose friendships and connection they truly value, is affirmation and confirmation of the relationship. People want to know that they belong, and that they still matter.  Circumstances do not always allow for the shared experience of attending an event together, or sharing vacation time together, but it is important to be creative and allow your love and affection for those close to you to be expressed in the most meaningful manner possible.

So consider the challenge of leaving the traditional mercantile holidays behind, and embracing instead a giving spirit reflective of the gratitude we ought to feel for all we have received.  Giving of one’s self, Christmas day and every day, is what makes life worth living.

Wishing you a Blessed and very Merry Christmas from all of us at the Culture of Life Foundation.