Can you remember a time when you offered a gift to someone? Perhaps a holiday present, or a treat to a child, or taking time for a friend – or anything at all. How did this feel? Researchers have found that giving stimulates the same neural networks that light up when we feel physical pleasure, such eating a cookie or running warm water over cold hands. Long ago, the Buddha said that generosity makes one happy before, during, and after the giving.
Then there is receiving. Can you remember a different time, when someone was giving toward you? Maybe it was a tangible, something you could hold in your hands, or perhaps it was something like a moment of warmth, or an apology, or some kind of restraint. Whatever it was, how did it feel? Probably pretty good.
Well, if you are giving . . . toward yourself . . . it’s a two-for-one deal! And besides the benefits noted above, there are the implicit rewards of taking action rather than being passive (which helps reduce any sense of learned helplessness, to which mammals like us are very vulnerable), and of treating yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you haven’t felt like you mattered enough to others.
Further, when you give more to yourself, you have more to offer others when your own cup runneth over. Studies show that as people experience greater well-being, they are usually more inclined toward kindness, patience, altruism, and other kinds of “prosocial” behavior.
As Bertrand Russell wrote: The good life is a happy life. I do not meant that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.
Gifting yourself comes in many forms, most them in small moments in everyday life. For example, as I write this, the gift is to lean back from the keyboard, take a breath, look out the window, and relax. It’s a do-able gift.
Less tangibly, earlier this week I was getting wrapped up mentally in wanting a friend to succeed in his business, so I gave myself the “treat” of letting go of my over-investment in things beyond my control. Sitting in a meeting earlier today and thinking about this practice, I took in the gift of appreciating how fortunate I was to learn from the other people in the room.
Not doing can also be an important gift to yourself: Not having that third beer, not interrupting a friend’s irritated account of a hassle at work, not bugging a lover who wants some space right now, not staying up late watching TV, not rushing about while you drive . . .
You can see how many opportunities there are each day to offer yourself simple yet beautiful and powerful gifts. Routinely ask yourself: What could I give myself right now? Or: What do I long for – that’s in my power to give myself? Then try to actually do it.
Focusing on a longer time frame, ask yourself: What’s the gift I want to offer myself today? This week? This year? Even: This life? Try to stay with the listening to the answers, letting them ring and ring again in the open space of awareness.
You could also imagine a deeply nurturing being and see what this one gives you – and then open to giving this to yourself.
Knowing your own giving heart – which is usually offered to others – can you extend that heart to yourself? Out of kindness and wisdom, cherishing and support, let your gifts flow to that one being in this world over whom you have the most power and therefore to whom you have the highest duty of care – the one who has your name.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.