Happiness Workout #3: Generosity Towards Loved Ones
Note: this series of short essays was an experiment to see if I could help my friends and family become happier. In its original form, it was an email sequence that was sent on a weekly basis. Due to other commitments, I ended the email sequence, but wanted to publish the content in case you, dear reader, find it helpful.
As George Saunders once wrote, "The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer?". It's continually focused on itself and on what would improve its current situation.
Unsurprisingly, this is not great for happiness.
By routinely focusing on others, and by consciously appreciating how much better that feels, we can begin to overcome this tendency. Becoming a more generous person is an essential step to becoming a happier person.
But who should we be generous towards? Research published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine looked at exactly this question by letting research participants give to either people they knew or to a charity of their choice. The researchers then scanned the participants' brains in an fMRI machine.
Both groups showed activation in the ventral striatum and the septal areas - regions of the brain associated with parental care in mammals.
However, only the group that gave to people they already knew saw a decrease in activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. High amygdala activity is seen when we're anxious, scared, or stressed.
Bottom line: being generous with those you love is not only good for happiness, but is scientifically linked to reducing stress and anxiety as well.
There are other important benefits that are related to being generous with strangers, but we'll come to that in a few weeks. For now, let's go through two generosity based workouts for those we are already close to.
Week #3 Basic Workout: Generous with Compliments
Generosity doesn't always require spending money. Its easier, and often more impactful, to simply be generous with compliments.
The workout this week will be one rep of each of the following:
- Tell a teenager: “You are so brilliant. I can’t wait to see who you become. And I love who you are right now.”
- Tell your mom (or someone who feels like your mom): “You raised me right. The biggest lessons I’ve learned from you are ________ and _________. Thank you.”
- Tell your dad (or someone who feels like your dad): “You’ve given me so many gifts. Like the ability to _______________, and the confidence to _______________. Thank you.”
At least one of these should be on a handwritten note. The other two can be texted/emailed.
Yes, handwriting will require you to go to the store to buy a postcard, to possibly go to the post office to buy stamps and mail it, and all the requisite hassle that entails. The hassle is the point.
By consciously investing your attention and time into doing something nice for someone you care about, you are going to unconsciously feel more gratified when its done.
Week #3 Advanced Workout: Generosity with Gifts
Start a "Gifts to Give" list. I use a bookmark folder in Chrome (instructions), but you might use your phone's notes app, an album of pictures in your phone, or a pen and paper.
I've been doing this for the past 10 years or so and it's hard to put into words the tangible and intangible benefits this has given.
Tangibly, this makes Christmas and Birthday shopping a breeze.
But intangibly it's shifted my focus when shopping. Knowing you have such a list puts you in the state of mind to look at shopping not for you, but for others. You'll start imagining things being used by the ones you care about and how much they'd enjoy this or that.
Unfortunately I can't share publicly my list or the sources I use (since my friends and family are subscribed to this newsletter and it would ruin the surprise), but if you aren't related to me respond to this email and I'll send a few ideas.
The final step: buy a gift for a loved one. Right now. Ideally an experience, and ideally for no reason whatsoever (e.g. not for someone with a birthday coming up).
“For it is in giving that we receive.” ― St. Francis of Assisi
This is the fourth in a series of short articles. Click here for part five.
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