Editorial: The spirit of Christmas

by Listener Archive / 13 December, 2012
Kiwis shine at helping others – and that helps our own health and happiness.
Editorial - The spirit of Christmas

’Tis the season to over-imbibe, overeat and overspend, and to hope that the consequences of that are not so severe as to keep us away from the Boxing Day bargains. Even with cautious householders trying hard to reduce their debts and, in many cases, worrying about job security, it’s not easy in the frenzy of gift-giving to resist the spiralling expectations generated by ever-more sophisticated gadgetry and the bombardment of messages telling us that getting what we want will make us, and our children, happier. It won’t.

In fact, science tells us the opposite is true. The famous “marshmallow experiment”, initiated at Stanford University in the 1960s, shows that four-year-olds with stronger inbuilt impulse control – those who could resist the temptation of a marshmallow left invitingly in front of them in favour of two marshmallows if they waited until later – went on to do better at school and were less likely to be obese, addicted to illegal drugs or divorced than those who were unable to resist the urge for immediate gratification. The marshmallow kids, now in their forties, were retested in a study last year, revealing the key role the prefrontal cortex plays in sending “calm-down” signals to the midbrain’s “I want it now” circuits.

Scientists now say everything that has been discovered about the plasticity of the adult brain suggests it’s possible to increase the number and strength of these connections so that the midbrain receives more calming signals. But, then, New Zealanders already know that. The tens of thousands of Kiwis – especially those in Christchurch, but many elsewhere, too – who have experienced trauma, loss and dislocation in the past few years have learnt that resilience and recovery have little to do with newfangled consumer goodies, and everything to do with family, neighbourhood and community connectedness. Biscuits baked with kindness, a cup of tea or a walk shared with a lonely neighbour, a phone call made with love and concern for someone burdened by grief or fear, a crowd-funded swing for the local park – these are the lasting gifts and hallmarks of happier communities.

Yet for people who are suffering this December – whether from isolation, depression, poor health or poverty – Christmas can be a season of heightened struggle. The inspired campaign “Forget the bling-bling, do the whanau thing”, run by the Mental Health Foundation in collaboration with the Whangarei Gambling Action group, is using the power of social media to ease that struggle. The message is simple: “Let’s make Christmas about whanau, not stuff.”

The foundation’s adaptation of The Twelve Days of Christmas song could be a universal manual for a healthier and more-connected festive season that celebrates the power of simple shared pleasures – a batch of scones, a new family photo, a hand in the garden. Because after the piles of wrapping paper have been cleared away – and with them hopefully the disturbing images of Kim Dotcom being invited to turn on the Christmas lights in Freemans Bay simply because, like some Gotham City character, he donates huge amounts of money for firework displays – it won’t be memories of opening up retail purchases that will survive the test of time for our children. The memories that last will be of summer days spent playing backyard cricket with cousins and neighbours, of shared laughs around a barbecue as the stars twinkle above, or an enthralling book while in the warm lap of a grandma or grandpa.

Psychologists report that oxytocin, known as the “love hormone” because of the role it plays in pair bonding and maternal behaviour, reduces anxiety and makes people more patient and – interestingly – more able to resist immediate gratification. Helper’s high can do the same thing. Volunteering elevates levels of the body’s natural opiates, such as “happy hormones” endorphins and dopamine. People who help others also help themselves. They tend to live longer, for a start: helping is an independent, unique predictor of reduced risk of mortality, even when adjusted for factors like baseline health, mental health and age. Volunteers simply need to feel effective and get positive feedback.

So here’s to all those New Zealanders who quietly shine at helping others. As Winston Churchill once so wisely observed: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” We wish all our readers, your whanau and your friends a very happy and helping Christmas.
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