Between an uptick in social obligations, dealing with family tensions, and the pressure to have a Hallmark-worthy season of joy, the holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year.
“The holidays can be tough because of the expectations that people put on themselves or that they may have from friends or family,” says Amy Lopez, PhD, LCSW, assistant professor of adult psychiatry in the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “People think they need to make it magical and amazing, and to do that, they push themselves too far and overcommit themselves. There are too many events and no time for rest, and people spend too much money. It can become more stressful than fun.”
Giving to receive
One way to combat the stress of the season, Lopez says, is to embrace one of its core tenets — the spirit of giving. Whether you’re giving meaningful gifts to family and friends or giving of your time by volunteering for organizations to which you have a personal connection, focusing on giving during the holidays can lead to more fulfillment and less anxiety.
Lopez cites several studies as evidence of the benefits of giving, including one in which participants were given the opportunity to either buy a gift for themselves or a gift for someone else, then rate their sense of happiness.
“Across the board, people who bought something for someone else were happier,” Lopez says. “They didn’t even give it to the other person, they didn’t see the other person’s reaction; it was just the experience of thinking about that person and what they might like.”
Similarly, in a trend Lopez observed on TikTok, people were given the option to either keep $50 for themselves or “pay it forward” to someone else. Nearly everyone donated the money, and they reported greater happiness from doing so.
“We’re actually hardwired, evolutionarily, to be kind and to help people out,” Lopez says. “It makes us feel better. We’re supposed to be kind to each other so that we can all get along in society.”
Volunteering with value
There are a few caveats when it comes to the benefits of giving, however — especially when it comes to giving your time by volunteering.
“One of my favorite studies around this is one where they gave people the option to volunteer or do something else,” Lopez says. “Those who chose to volunteer were randomly assigned to one of three options: a direct service opportunity where they got to serve soup or tutor kids, something with a direct impact; an indirect opportunity, like a food bank, but they got to do it with other people; or a volunteer task, like filing papers or stocking shelves, that they did by themselves.”
The participants who reported the highest wellbeing scores were the ones who saw the direct impact of their work, Lopez says. Second-highest were the people who volunteered as a group.
“The person who had to do a volunteer activity by themselves actually had negative wellbeing,” Lopez says. “If it doesn’t help you or benefit you in some way, doing good doesn't necessarily help. If you’re doing all these things for other people, and you don’t enjoy it, you’re not getting any benefits from it, then why are you doing it?”
If you are looking to volunteer this holiday season, look for direct service opportunities or activities you can do with family and friends, Lopez says.
“Helping other people and being kind and volunteering and doing those things are great, as long as it’s not impacting you negatively,” she says. “If you go wrap presents at Boys and Girls Club, but you’re in a room by yourself, it probably isn’t going to help you feel better. You might feel resentful, because it’s taking away from other things you could be doing.”
The joy of giving
The holidays have become synonymous with giving gifts, which is another way to reduce stress and increase wellbeing, Lopez says.
“You get two benefits from it. One is when you’re purchasing the gift because it allows you to think about that person, think about why you like them and why you care about them and what their interests are,” Lopez says. “It connects you to them, even if you’re not with them. Then you get the secondary benefit of giving it to them and seeing them open it. It’s what we call empathetic joy, where we get to share in their joy, and that’s beneficial for wellbeing.”
There are caveats with gift-giving as well, Lopez says, the most important of which is creating and sticking to a budget so that giving doesn’t become another cause for holiday stress. Another recommendation is to give experiences, as opposed to things.
“Instead of just giving somebody a coffee mug, say, ‘Why don’t we set a coffee date?’ so you can meet and hang out and talk,” she says. “That way, it benefits both of you. If you’re looking to buy gifts for young kids, rather than giving them more toys that they’re going to outgrow, think about a membership to the zoo or a museum. Something their parents can take them to that they can experience.”
Remember the small things
If this holiday season simply doesn’t allow enough time for giving or volunteering on a large scale, just maintaining a giving spirit can be enough to increase well-being, Lopez says.
“You don’t have to perform a grand gesture or do something big to get a mood boost,” she says. “Simple acts of courtesy, kindness, and connection are just as valuable to both parties. Something as easy as holding the door, offering a compliment or encouragement, sending a holiday card, or saying thank-you can be enough to raise your spirits.”