Psychologists claim that it is frequently the giver, not the recipient, who reaps the largest psychological gains from a gift.
Here is my monthly Home News Tribune column that was published on November 30, 2009.
In a New York Times article about gift-giving, Tara Parker-Pope wrote about the importance of gifts in helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. She described the "potlatch," which is a ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Some native cultures have engaged in this ritual for thousands of years. "Although cultural interpretations vary," Parker-Pope explains, "often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead, by who gave away the most."
Random acts of kindness abound but only if you know where to look. Here's something that I witnessed recently and there is no better time than the Thanksgiving season to share this story.
Last summer, I was riding on a crowded rush-hour subway in New York when the following display of altruism unfolded. Scout's honor, that there is no author's embellishment in my description. A young woman in her twenties was seated next to the subway door and saw an elderly woman trying to board the subway as the doors were closing. The young woman reached out her hand to hold the door, and the elderly woman successfully shuffled in. She shouted "Thank you!" as she was catching her breath.
Noticing drops of water all over the elderly woman's coat, the young woman said, "Darn! I can't believe it is raining and I forgot my umbrella at home!" The older woman reached into her huge multi-colored shopping bag, grabbed something, and said to the young woman, "Here's a disposable poncho that I carry around in case someone ever needs it." In response, the young woman jumped up, thanked her, and insisted, "Please take my seat." The older woman responded, "That's not necessary: I only have two more stops." At that point, five other people on the bench seat slid over so that these two new friends could sit beside one another.
When stories like this unfold in front of my eyes, I instinctively look around to see if someone is about to yell, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" (That tells you my age). I was so moved by this brief experience that I immediately wrote down the details of the story.
In difficult times people seem to help one another, even complete strangers. Maybe in the post-Sept.11 era in which we live, the awareness of our enemies who want to harm us motivates us to seek out family and friends and to be kind to others on subways and in supermarkets.
Take a wild guess at what researchers are discovering. Studies have shown that when you help others, you actually help yourself. The finest description of the health benefits of altruism and compassion comes from Dr. Dean Ornish in his Newsweek essay titled, "Love is Real Medicine." Ornish explains,
"Instead of viewing the time we spend with friends and family as luxuries, we can see that these relationships are among the most powerful determinants of our well-being and survival. We are hard-wired to help each other. Science is documenting the healing values of love, intimacy, community, compassion, forgiveness, altruism and service. Seen in this context, being unselfish may be the most self-serving approach to life, for it helps free both the giver and recipient from suffering, disease, and premature death."
On that note, have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column via his Web site www.FamilyThinking.com