For many, the holidays are a time of selfless giving. Food banks and homeless shelters are filled with volunteers; the Salvation Army stands outside grocery stores asking for donations; friends and family exchange copious amount of thoughtful gifts. While Americans feel that they are being altruistic during the holidays,by giving to others, this act is one of the most selfish because it results in feelings of gratitude and happiness, according to a study conducted by social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia.
The concept that giving makes people happy is not new or revolutionary. We all experience this on a daily basis when we perform acts of kindness for others. There are entire websites dedicated to random acts of kindness, distributing satisfaction and help to all. Usually, buying a needy person lunch will fill the purchaser with a sense of fulfillment. But what do you do if your act of selflessness leaves you feeling resentful and discontented rather than rewarded?
Let me elaborate further. On December 1st, advent calendars were revealed and placed into living rooms across the country. For most families, their calendars were filled with chocolates to enjoy every day until Christmas. Mine was full of activities to complete every day for the next 25 days. Some activities were silly like making the Elf Yourself videos of my family and friends; others were holiday-related such as watching a Christmas movie or driving around to see the houses decorated in lights; and a few were serious such as volunteering a food bank or giving someone a genuine compliment. This morning, when I opened one of the 25 envelopes hung on ribbon on my mantelpiece and pulled out the slip of paper with my activity written on it, I was instructed to “buy someone something really small and thoughtful.”
Upon reading those words, my mind sped to my brother, my mother, my father, my boyfriend, and my friends. I mulled over in my brain, trying to remember if they had asked for anything recently. Nothing came to mind. Later in the day, I had finally resolved to purchase my mother a bouquet of flowers when my girl friend asked me if I wanted to watch Brave. Perfect, I thought. I will surprise her with the film and a box of chocolate chip cookies. For circumstances too lengthy to explain here, we ended up at a Starbucks on our way to the nearest movie rental kiosk to rent the film together.
We purchased our holiday beverages and while we waited for them to be made, a woman frantically approached me and asked, “Can I have some money for food?” I told her I did not have any cash and she quickly asked my friend and the man standing next to us. Both said, “No.” The woman seemed so frazzled and distressed that I thought she was in trouble so I offered to buy her a sandwich to which she responded, “And a coffee, too?”
“Sure,” I said as we made our way to the tiny refrigerator where the sandwiches are stored. The woman picked up a sandwich and said, “Can I get one for my sister, too?” This is where I had to draw the line. I do not know if you have ever been to a Starbucks, but those sandwiches are not cheap.
We made our way to the cashier from whom I ordered a small coffee. The woman showed the cashier her sandwich and rudely stated, “This woman is paying,” and pointed at me. “Would you like to order a holiday drink and get another sticker on your holiday card?” the cashier asked. I refused and quickly handed her my credit card. While the transaction went through, the woman with the sandwich asked the cashier about the gingerbread lattes and peppermint mochas. As soon as I received my card back, my phone rang and I had to rush outside to answer it. I did not have the opportunity to hear whether or not the woman said, “Thank you,” or showed any signs of appreciation.
After the woman and I parted ways, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth from my interaction with her. Usually I felt happy after helping others, but something was not right. I realized that the problem was that when we do acts of kindness, we expect a kind response. We expect a smile or some form of acknowledgement for what we did. Even if the recipient is not present at the time of the act, such as adding coins to an expired parking meter, what gives us gratification is knowing that the person will be thankful when they discover what we have done. With this woman, I was not so sure.
Later in the night, I brought my mother a bouquet of fragrant lilies, her favorite flower. Her face lit up with a smile and she expressed terms of endearment and love. Seeing the happiness that my actions brought her filled me with happiness as well. But what if she had been a stranger? What if I could never see how my acts of kindness affect others? Would I still gain the same amount of satisfaction? If we separate ourselves from the positive acts we are committing and do not expect anything from their recipients, if we are solely generous and selfless for the sake of improving another’s life without seeking to gain any gratification on our part, that is when we can be truly happy always.