Red, yellow, orange. As the leaves give their final display of brilliance in preparation for winter, we are shifting into the Christmas season. A season characterized by generosity, family dinners, laughter, hot chocolate by the fireplace and 53 original Hallmark movies to tug at your heart strings. These are the values and experiences we desire and cherish. However, the reality is often very different from our ideal. Christmas for many, is an extremely stressful time of year. The pressure of family relationships and the financial burden of buying gifts to live up to the expectations created by the commercialism of Christmas can be overwhelming for most. In fact, studies show that there are more heart attacks on and around the Christmas season than any other time of year. There’s no question a shift is needed from the materialism that has become a societal norm at this time of year to a season characterized by compassion and altruism.
The truth is, we are hardwired for compassion. That’s why it feels so good to give a gift or help someone with a task. In fact, a study from the National Institute of Health showed that the pleasure centers of our brains are equally activated by even observing someone give money to charity as when we receive money for ourselves. Another study showed that kids as young as 2 who gave treats to other kids exhibited higher levels of happiness than those who just received a treat themselves. Practicing compassion helps to shift our focus from self to others. Research has shown that practicing compassion can play a part in lowering rates of depression and anxiety, which are known to be states of high self-focus. Compassion also boosts your physical health by helping to reduce inflammation in your body. Our society is one that is plagued by chronic stress which is causing our bodies to be in a state of sympathetic dominance (too much time in fight or flight mode). Those who live in sympathetic dominance have higher levels of inflammation and are at a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses. Being compassionate and serving others helps to reduce stress levels by taking you out of sympathetic dominance, which in turn, decreases inflammation and increases happiness and creates a sense of greater meaning.
Now compassion can be practiced in many ways. The giving of gifts is the traditional way people practice compassion at this time of year, but there are also the gifts of time, gifts of love and gifts of ourselves. So, whether it be serving at a soup kitchen, helping out a family in need or investing your time with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, it is our hope that compassion will be at the root of your Christmas season this year!