Did you have a happy Chanukah? Did you get any good gifts? It turns out if you want to increase your happiness and health, the question is not did you get any good gifts but did you give any. Research across psychology and neuroscience shows that giving gifts lights up the pleasure portions of the brain.
In a widely-quoted study, Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, gave participants either $5 or $20 and told one group to spend it on either other people and the other group to spend it on themselves. The results showed that people who were told to spend on others were significantly happier than those who spent the money on themselves, regardless of the dollar amount.
Happiness does not result from a focus inward, but it results from the deep satisfaction and profound gratification of imitating God and helping and giving to others. The Rambam discusses the Halachos of giving not when discussing Chanukah, but in reference to Purim. At the end of Hilchos Megillah (2:17), the Rambam makes an incredible comment. He asks, if a person has limited funds and must choose between having a more lavish and luxurious Purim meal, more extravagant and impressive mishloach manos, or giving more matanos l’evyonim, money to the poor, what should he do and why?
The Rambam codifies that the resources should be dedicated to helping the indigent and poor because Purim is about simcha and there is no greater happiness than bringing joy to others, especially the underprivileged.
Someone once wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l in a state of deep depression and hopelessness. The letter essentially said, “I would like the Rebbe's help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help."
The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply that did not use even a single word. He simply circled the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The author of the letter understood, and he was on the path to greater happiness and hope. The circled word at the beginning of each sentence was “I.”
A self-centered person, a taker, can never be happy in life because they could never take enough. Givers find joy in doing for others and therefore have great access to happiness because there are always ample opportunities to give.
Dunn found that an exceedingly underrated gift is much simpler and cheaper than you think, the gift of gratitude. She observed, "Research shows that people absolutely love hearing expressions of gratitude. It makes people super happy." You don’t have to spend a lot of money or figure out the perfect gift. "Writing really lovely thank you notes to people is actually a great gift in itself."
Moshe Rabbeinu had many names and yet the one he is universally known by is Moshe. Why? Of all his names, why use the one given by Bisya, the daughter of Pharaoh, who saved him from the river? Why not use the name his own mother gave him? The Torah endorses the name Moshe as a perpetual thank you to Bisya for her generous and courageous act. Sometimes, an act of generosity is so great, it cannot possibly be repaid other than to never stop saying thank you.
This week I learned of yet a different type of gift, one the giver and recipient both benefit from and enjoy.
A dear friend of mine who leads a very successful company held a retreat for his employees and their spouses, an overwhelming majority of whom are observant. The long weekend provided magnificent hospitality, delicious delicacies, fun activities, spiritual inspiration and amazing entertainment. The level of gashmiyus, material pleasure, was matched and surpassed by the height of the ruchniyus, the spiritual atmosphere and opportunities.
The employees wanted to present a gift to the company’s owner in gratitude not only for the weekend but for all he does for them regularly, but they were stuck. What would be meaningful? What would be something he would appreciate that he couldn’t easily get for himself?
What they gave him blew him away. They presented a stunning edition of the Sefer Chafetz Chaim, a sefer he learns daily with his wife, but that wasn’t the real gift. They distributed copies of Chafetz Chaim: A Daily Companion, a wonderful work on the concepts and laws of proper speech, to all the employees, and made a group commitment to study and implement it in his honor. He was so excited and it meant the world to him.
It has been said, the best things in life aren’t things. While there are “things,” necessities in life that we can’t live without, and there are “things” that make wonderful, sentimental, and practical presents, sometimes the greatest gift is not a thing, but a commitment to improve and to become better.
Not in lieu of material gifts, but alongside them, we can gift our spouse a commitment to be a better husband or wife, we can gift our parents a practical plan of how we will be a better son or daughter, we can demonstrate to our friend the gift of more loyal friendship. These gifts won’t break the bank, they don’t cost anything, but they are invaluable.
If you want to find happiness, don’t focus on getting but giving. Give a gift to someone for no reason at all, make them feel acknowledged and visible. It will bring a smile to their face and put happiness in your heart. Give the gift of gratitude for those who have enriched your life. Don’t just mumble a thank you, take the time to write a nice note and communicate meaningfully. But the greatest gift you can give both yourself and others around you is to become the best version of yourself, the person they deserve you for you to be.