The Medical Minute: A healthy holiday includes giving gifts – and a good attitude

Woman in sweater giving a wrapped Christmas gift box to child.

Not to sound materialistic, but a happier holiday just might be all about the presents.

December 15, 2021Penn State Health News

That’s because the joy of giving and receiving this time of year connects with something deep inside all of us ― the happiness that comes from a sense of belonging.

“We all desire commonality, to fit in and be part of a community,” said Nate Sattazahn, a licensed professional counselor with Penn State Health Medical Group Psychiatry. “Giving and receiving a gift shows that you care and that you are cared about.”

Physiologically speaking, dopamine – the “feel good” neurotransmitter – is released when we give or receive and impacts feelings of trust between ourselves and others, he said.

“I give a gift to you, and that helps me because now your opinion of me changes and that makes me feel good,” he said. “Conversely, you get a gift from me and that reinforces that I like you or care about you, and that makes you feel good.”

It’s what’s behind the gift that matters

Turns out it doesn’t really matter if the gift is large or small or even if it’s a tangible item or the gift of spending dedicated time with someone. It’s the mentality behind the gift that means the most.

“It’s really all about relationships,” Sattazahn said.

How can you be a better gift-giver or receiver when the person you’re buying for grates on you or the gift you receive isn’t something you love?

“In the receiving of that gift, even if it’s not something you’re inclined to like, understand that it is rooted in something good,” Sattazahn said. “Similarly, giving a gift is really an opportunity to show you had that person in mind, and you put time into thinking about what they might like.”

In fact, many aspects of making a merry holiday start with perspective – and spinning yours around to the positive.

Don’t aim for a “perfect” holiday

“The pursuit of the perfect holiday causes a lot of stress. It sets us up for failure,” Sattazahn said. “It’s much better to practice mindfulness and live in the moment and accept whatever the holiday brings.”

It’s also important to give yourself permission to step away from a stressful moment to decompress, he said.

“This can be especially important if you’re the host or hostess. Taking five or 10 minutes to sit alone, meditate or go somewhere you enjoy can recharge your attitude,” Sattazahn said.

Sometimes, the holidays find us across the table from someone we’d never choose to be with or in a living room tight with tense conversation over divisive issues, such as vaccinations or political ideologies. How can we infuse holiday cheer into those moments?

For starters, focus on a positive characteristic about the person you’re with – find the good instead of the bad. (Think: Even if you don’t get along with your mother-in-law, she did give birth to the man you love, right?)

“The important thing is to keep in mind that we have much more in common than we think, so let’s focus on that rather than on the one or two things we disagree upon,” Sattazahn said. “People certainly are entitled to their perspective, and knowing that we would like the other person to honor our perspective may help us honor theirs.”

Hard circumstances call for a longer view

Perhaps the death of a loved one during the past year or the stress of a job loss or broken relationship is coloring your entire perspective on the holiday.

Once again, mindfulness can help.

“Being mindful means that instead of becoming preoccupied with a loss or a worry and letting that dictate how you feel about the entire season, you step back and look at the bigger picture – your life as a whole – and realize what is good in the moment,” Sattazahn said.

Cliché as it may sound, an attitude of gratitude goes a long way in making spirits bright, long past the holidays.

“Just keeping a gratitude list can have a tremendous impact,” Sattazahn said. “I mostly counsel cancer patients who have lost so much of their normal routine, their ability and their time, but we think about what they do have – support from family, a great medical team and this moment in time, which is all any of us has.”

Tomorrow isn’t promised. “Stop and smell the roses,” he said.

Or in this case, the evergreens.

Related content:

  • The Medical Minute: Virtual gatherings may be best way to celebrate holidays
  • The Medical Minute: Healthy eating over the holidays

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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