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A psychologist's letter to Santa

Dear Santa, I'm worried about you...

Dear Santa,

Sometimes when I pass you in the mall there’s a note of sadness in your brave “ho ho hos,” and you seem to have a little less sparkle in your eyes. Are you okay?

Yes, I know. You are a Giver . Yes, it is better to give than to receive. Lots of scientific research confirms this. Not all giving is created equally, though. It’s understandable that your elves are not up to date on the latest scientific journals, considering the time of year. But research finds that there are ways to give that can make you feel happier and closer to others.

For example, people who give their time and money to nonprofit organizations are happier, healthier, and live longer than those who don’t. Yet according to the National Retail Federation, last November and December Americans spent nearly twice the amount of money on holiday gifts ($602 billion) than they donated to charity ($335 billion) across the entire year . Perhaps Americans are unaware of your strategic collaborations with children’s charities.

Gift giving is important of course, but the way that we give matters. Studies find that giving shared experiences makes people feel happier and closer to each other than giving material objects. So why carry that backbreaking bag of toys when you know they’ll be discarded as soon as the novelty wears off? What if instead of giving Susy a new DVD, you took her out to see a movie? I realize that sometimes it’s easier to just have your elves make another train set, doll, or video game. But giving us your time is how we know you really care, Santa.

And it may not be a good idea to save up all of your giving until the end of the year. Just as it’s good for our physical health to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, it’s good for our emotional health to give in many different ways, so that each act of giving is fresh and enjoyable. Have you considered spreading out your giving throughout the year, instead of pulling a single all-nighter, fueled by cookies and milk? Getting this all done in one day must really take its toll on your health. With a few small tweaks in the way you give, you may start to feel like yourself again.

One other thing—healthy relationships involve mutual giving and receiving—not just one person who gives all the time without ever receiving. Being an over-giver without receiving can lead to compassion fatigue. That might explain the punitive, “naughty or nice” distinction on which you seem so fixated. (There are some really great therapists at near your home if you ever want to talk to someone: We know you mean well, Santa, but no man is an island, even if he lives at the North Pole. To be a better giver, you also need to be able to receive sometimes. You probably don’t get asked this very often, but what do you want for Christmas this year?