Louisa Jewell, MAPP '09, is president of Positive Matters and a consultant, facilitator and speaker who works with organizations around the world to develop positive leaders and nurture productive teams. Listen to Louisa's podcasts on positive matters, collected from a radio show she hosted. Full bio.
Louisa's PositivePsychologyNews.com articles are here.
This Saturday will mark the 14th year that my husband Tim and I will play Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the Red Door Family Homeless Shelter Holiday party. Even though it is the most heart-wrenching thing we do, it is the most fulfilling 4 hours of our year. We have also made it a tradition to sponsor a homeless family who has recently left the shelter along with family and friends. Over the years our friends have helped many families but this year, the experience was truly magical.
When the women of my book club heard the plight of the families of the Red Door, they enthusiastically embraced the task of sponsoring a family. Our sponsor family includes a mother who was being physically abused by her husband. She has three young boys, 14, 12 and 4 and had to flee in the middle of the night with nothing and nowhere to go. Most women endure the abuse, fearing their abuser, but this woman was strong and wanted a different life for her and her children. She spent a few months at the Red Door getting back on her feet and now lived in a comfortable apartment in a very bad part of town.
The donations started pouring in. Everyone thought, “What can we do to make this family feel loved and valued?” It was like they were buying for family members. The oldest boy asked for an XBOX which is an expensive item. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to afford it, but we received enough donations to purchase it for him. Friends spent time baking cookies for our family and sent them lovingly wrapped. Others bought clothes, pots and pans, even a gift certificate for a popular lingerie store (what woman doesn’t like lingerie?). Some of the women in our book club who struggled this year, donated generously. It was wonderful to know this family was going to have a good Christmas…but what touched my heart was how the women of the book club were transformed. They felt it made a difference in their lives and here’s how…
Spending on Others Made Them Happy
As soon as we announced the sponsorship, women started to write to me to say, “Thank you for bringing this to the book club.” So they were donating to others and yet they were saying thank you for the experience. These acts of kindness were uplifting for many of the women who said things like “Giving to the sponsor family fills me up. When the actions make a true difference in their life at that moment… It’s a win win.” Thus giving filled everyone with positive emotions. One study performed by Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia found that people were happier when they spent money on others compared to spending it on themselves.
It Gave Them an Opportunity to Give Back
For others, it was an opportunity to give back to those who had generously helped them in the past. One of the women wrote to me; “Personally, I am forever grateful to the Salvation Army for helping my family upon our arrival in Canada. My parents and I came in 1956 from Hungary, under Canada’s newly established political refugee status, with nothing but a suitcase of clothes and my teddy bear. They provided clothing for the harsh Canadian winter, furniture and fittings for our new apartment and support and access to medical, social and employment services. They asked for nothing in return and did not proselytize. We thrived and I consider it my duty to help others in need in whatever way I can.” It is this sense of gratitude we feel for being helped in the past that can spur a sense of what is right for the future.
It Helped to Teach our Children about Gratitude
Another woman wrote: “I have always been so excited to just simply give; it makes me feel so good, and it comes from such a deep place, and to do it in a group with all our families involved was such a blessing and lesson for our children.” According to research performed by Robert Emmons, we know that practicing gratitude, either showing our appreciation or receiving it, can improve our levels of well-being. It is hard, however, to know how to teach it to our children. Allowing our kids to participate in this kind of experience teaches gratitude and appreciation. My children have always been uplifted by participating in sponsoring a family and have always appreciated what they have as a result.
It Improved our Resilience
Every time I have an opportunity to meet our sponsor families, I learn about the lives of some of these women who have survived such difficult circumstances. After meeting our sponsor mother, many of the women commented on how strong she was and what a good mother she was. I emerged from the experience feeling stronger knowing that the challenges in my life are tiny compared to hers.
It Inspired Others to Give
In a recent study performed by Simone Schnall of the University of Cambridge in England, she found that witnessing altruistic behavior invokes elevation, an emotion that, in turn, led to increases in altruism. In our case we received a donation of a $1,000 in grocery gift certificates from two friends of one of the women in the book club. When they heard about our sponsor family, they felt compelled to give. What maybe they didn’t know is that many of these mothers who live under the poverty line, often run out of money for groceries in the third week of every month. I’ve heard them say, “I let my kids eat first and then I eat what is left.” That donation will help this mother feed her children all year.
It Evoked feelings of Awe and Elevation
For me, the greatest gift from sponsorship was awe and elevation. To be witness to the outpouring of love and kindness was truly magical. While you may think it takes a breathtaking sunset or a Van Gogh to capture your heart, the love and kindness these women generously gave to complete strangers was something I savored every day. I quote Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, who says “Awe sends the signal to move closer, and that clears the way for altruism, generosity, and acts of kindness.” When people are in awe, they see themselves as being part of something larger than themselves and they are forever changed. This is what I saw in the book club.
All of these gifts of positivity, gratitude, an opportunity give back, resilience, and awe will last much longer than the XBOX or a set of pots and pans. These are memories we will savor together for years to come.
The day we delivered the gifts, I called the mother to tell her that 18 women wanted to meet her. I wasn’t sure if she would be overwhelmed, so I asked her permission. She said “I think it will be nice to meet everyone so I can say thank you.” So we all showed up at her door, filled her living room to the brim with gifts (and women!) and gave her our best wishes. After we left, her little 12-year-old boy started to cry.
“Why are you crying?” asked his mom.
“I’m crying because I just can’t believe how nice people are,” he said.
I truly believe that boy will grow up to be a successful young man who will play Santa Claus for another family in need one day…all in good time.
Sharing stories can inspire us all…What do you do to give back during the holiday season?
Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L.B. & Norton, M.I. (2008) Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 21, 319, 1687 – 1688.
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Oprah Magazine, December 2010 Issue, p. 156.
Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 315-320.