'Tis The Season For Life Lessons

On Holiday Spirit: It Actually Does Make Us Kinder

By Brett Spiegel for Everyday Health

We all move throughout the year consumed by our own stresses and responsibilities -- whether it's work, money, family obligations, or just general anxiety about the future. However, as the air starts to cool and the snow begins to fall, low and behold it's holiday time. Hearts lift, joy rises, and people treat each other with genuine kindness.

Or do they? The lessons of the season are prime for emotional investigation. But what exactly is it about this time of year that separates the saints from the Scrooges?

Did Ebenezer Have It Right From the Get-Go?

Charitable giving is always a good idea, right? But maybe not your first idea, according to new research from the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that people are more likely to pay greed forward than generosity.

"The bulk of the scientific research on this concept has focused on good behavior, and we wondered what would happen when you looked at the entire gamut of human behaviors," said lead researcher Kurt Gray, PhD, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, in a press release.

The UNC researchers, with assistance from researchers at Harvard University, examined the behaviors of 100 recruits from a Cambridge, Mass., subway station after informing individuals that someone was splitting $6 with them. Participants were then given envelopes with variable amounts of money -- the full sum, half, or nothing at all -- and were then told to split an additional $6 with a future volunteer.

Those who had initially acquired the entire $6 paid forward only half of the extra money, while those who had gotten nothing were more inclined to share only a miniscule portion of the new $6, if anything at all.

"The idea of paying it forward is this cascade of goodwill will turn into a utopia, with everyone helping everyone," added Dr. Gray. "Unfortunately, greed or looking out for ourselves is more powerful than true acts of generosity."

The study authors concluded that acts of generosity failed to prompt exact or even similar reactions. Additionally, those victimized by greed perpetuated a pattern of future greed among others.

One possible reason: Negative stimuli held more weight with the test audience and thus acts of greed triumphed over acts of generosity. Gray said that this behavior may be rooted in a person's physiological instinct for survival. "If there is a tiger nearby, you really have to take notice or you'll get eaten," he said. "If there is a beautiful sunset or delicious food, it's not a life-or-death situation."

It's (Still) a Wonderful Life!

But don't fret; there's still hope. If George Bailey can alter his tune, so can others. According to a new study out of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, there is truth behind the idea that holidays can change a person's heart, famously exemplified by Scrooge himself.

The researchers analyzed the experiences of 14 people who experienced deep, unexpected, or life-long change -- similar to the way in which the lonely and bitter Scrooge gained enlightenment from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

"Like our participants, Scrooge was suffering. There was disintegration. There was a world that was ripe for change because of suffering going on," said Jeff Skalski, study co-author and former BYU grad student, in a press release. "Just by their presence, a trusted friend can open up possibilities and a sense of faith in what's possible that one can't see."

For the study, to be published in the January issue of The Humanistic Psychologist, Skalski recruited subjects through online posts in Illinois and Utah. Though an average of nine years had lapsed since their reported transformations, a majority of the participants could recall their moment-of-change like it was yesterday, a turning point from their overwhelming financial, academic, or relationship stress and woes.

One study subject, "Kevin," said about his transformation, "I say it's the best thing that could've happened, because my life is so much more rewarding than it once was. You can't put a price tag on certain…events that I maybe missed before -- certain events, and a marriage, and a family, birthdays, you know? Certain things that are just really fun to be a part of are more meaningful, and it is happiness -- the kind that lasts. I know these truths have been around forever. But for me they're new."

"We all know deep down inside that human beings can and do change in profound and significant ways," said Skalski.

But do you need to hit rock bottom like Scrooge to accept change and reevaluate what's important in your life? "That led me to think, well, is there a way that people can capitalize on these mechanisms of change and initiate them themselves instead of bottoming out," said study co-author and BYU psychology professor Sam Hardy, PhD, in the release. "Can you self-initiate this kind of change?" Well, perhaps that answer lies in future studies.

"'Tis The Season For Life Lessons" originally appeared on Everyday Health.

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