Since nobody is going to say it let me share some insights as I return from a week-long vacation to 32.67 holiday greeting cards from close friends that my wife and I have cultivated over the years. I love my inner circle but when you send me a winter solstice man photo spread in the mail, how about including pics of you? After all, I didn't crawl into 7am college classes with your kids. I didn't wake up naked and bloody in a shrub during summer bash 1996 with your kids. I didn't lose my teeth in a Morgantown bar with your kids.
And if you are going to send the card out, how about a single, personalized sentence? Just something to indicate that this is not a mass mailing and I do not have to subscribe to Ammo Magazine or Architectual Digest to keep them coming. And if you are feeling frisky and creative, how about a story? One of the reasons I look forward to my friend Michael Steger's annual card is that he shares a set of adventures each member of his clan went through over the year. Its playful, I get to see what he looks like, and I get to revel in his accomplishments by him and each family member. That is, I know what happened and feel connected. Isn't that what these little cards are supposed to be about? Or is the intention to show how physically beautiful the family is when a hired photographer gets two hours and hundreds of dollars to ensure you win "best in show"? If that's the case, then we really need to take a closer look at the science of kindness intentions vs. kind gestures.
It’s the time of year when we are at our happiest, our most generous, our most selfless. At least, we’re supposed to be. I mean, the idea that this is the season for giving has been drummed into us by family and commercial interests alike since we were still in the cradle.
But as someone who studies well-being for a living, I can tell you that giving out of a sense of obligation – in other words, mandated kindness – is a sure way to take the air out of your happiness balloon. Giving to show off how beautiful, talented, and fortuante you are is a bit of a suboptimal gift for other people.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m certain your parents meant well when they trained you to say thank you for the itchy orange birthday socks from your aunt, to buy presents for people with whom you had no real connection, to force you back into the bathroom to perfect each hair before the guests arrive…but you no longer have to hold onto that storyline.
Scientists have found that kindness and generosity are well-cleared paths to happiness, but the route comes with a caveat: when you make a kind or generous gesture, you have to mean it.
When we act with kindness because we want to, we experience a greater sense of purpose and the positive states that follow. When our generosity is an expression of a deeply-held personal value (e.g., “It is important to me that I care for people around me”), then our gestures feel genuine.
Simply making the gesture is not enough. What matters is the motivation behind the action.
With this in mind, make sure you give an extra moment’s thought to every gift you buy, make or share this season. It’s not the gift that really matters – it’s the intention behind it. It’s the effort you apply to picking something that’s actually appropriate for the recipient, something that demonstrates that you’ve really thought about that person’s life and interests.
Choose gifts that take advantage of the unique knowledge you have about this particular person. Find something that shows that you don’t see him or her as just another of your five hundreds Facebook friends (although, a little research into their social media pages can give great insight into what they love most, and lead to gift ideas).
When you give something that’s a true reflection of your mate, friend, uncle, or colleague, not only will it bring you joy and satisfaction, chances are the recipient will be grateful for you and not just the gift. And voila! You’ve not only celebrated the holidays, you’ve also scored a lot of emotional bang for your buck.
Giving something that you don’t really mean will just leave you cold. A gift given in earnest is a gift that will warm your heart.
Keep those adult friendships thriving...with and without the itty bitty ones. Because as you get older, and those kids no longer want to stand next to you in public, keep an arsenal of beloved friends who will welcome your hairy, wrinkled body into their home at 2pm on a Thursday for proscuitto covered triscuits.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. His new book, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology was published in 2013. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, see the contact information at toddkashdan.com.