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Happiness Tip: Give Yourself a Helper’s High

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Happy Holidays, everyone!

Did that greeting just make you warm inside with thoughts of winter lights and family celebrations and Salvation Army bells ringing for the poor? Or did you flinch? If you felt like rolling your eyes just now, I blame the retailers who have been forcing the holidays on us since the clock struck midnight on Halloween. This time of year usually generates 25 percent of all retail profits, and it seems every year advertisers redouble their holiday efforts to sell us stuff we don’t need.

Here’s the thing: though fraught with materialism, this season has more potential than any other to foster happiness.

Religious and culturally meaningful holidays spawn loads of family traditions–baking cookies, picking out a tree, caroling, parties to catch up with people you love–and it is family traditions and togetherness that offer lasting happiness. Social scientists have studied this specifically, and they’ve found that the people who spend more time with family and have more religious experiences during the holidays are happier than those who focus on spending money and receiving gifts.

But the most powerful way to foster happiness over the holidays is by helping others. The “helper’s high,” as one researcher has called it, that we get when we reach out to other people is considerably healthier than the (ahem) other adult highs in which we tend to indulge during the holidays. According to altruism researcher Stephen Post, this is because altruism creates deep and positive relationships. It distracts us from our own problems and the anxiety that comes from being preoccupied with ourselves. Helping others gives our own lives greater meaning and purpose. Altruistic behavior cultivates loads of positive emotions–think gratitude, awe, optimism, faith, compassion, and love–and those feelings displace negative emotions like guilt, envy and sadness.

Take Action: This year, create your own family tradition that involves giving to others. Check out this video with my friend Kelly Corrigan for inspiration.

Join the discussion: What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? Share your best ones in the comments.


  1. Our family traditions are making a gingerbread house (from a kit) and eating it. Road trip to Chicago to see the Christmas lights and decs. Then make a Jesus birthday cake and sing happy birthday on Christmas. When we lived in Dallas we bought a big box of cinnamon rolls and gave them out with hot chocolate at the Children’s parade first Saturday in December. That was fun. Looking forward to hearing other traditions. Always looking for ideas.

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