Christmas Chemistry Suggests that Adults Must Give, Children Receive

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As both a supplier and inducer of the 'Christmas Cheer' in the coming weeks, it will behoove you to get comfortable with a little chemistry. Now, a Savvy Tyro might stop me right there, knowingly reciting the tried-and-true formula of "booze the adults, sugar the children." Yes, yes; granted, that works pretty well. But there's more to the story of providing a truly enjoyable holiday season, the secret to which also has some positive green implications as well.
Story comes from Jeffrey Gonce, a Psychology teacher at Red Land High School in PA that asked his students to "complete a project describing a recent brain (or genetic) study that affects behavior." One of the best was written by "Alexandra M", 15 years, which dissects the chemical responses humans have when giving and getting Christmas gifts. From an environmental perspective, this is important - we want to maximize the festiveness of the season, while simultaneously not impacting the environment too much. Here is her story.

victorian christmas card with dog

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Tis Better to Give than Receive - Alexandra M
It's Christmas morning, and your brother rushes downstairs to see what "Santa" brought him. The morning goes by in a flurry of colorful wrapping paper and stringy ribbons until all that's left is a big present in the center of your brother's lap. The present that "Santa" brought him. As he rips open the paper, "Santa's" chest swells with pride, he feels good and happy. As the brother runs around screaming about his new remote controlled F-14 Tomcat, "Santa" laughs and cleans up. But why did he feel that way? He had maybe one to every five presents that his brother received. Why? Why does "Santa" not feel jealous?

Researchers have found that giving a present to another being actually feels better than receiving the gift. They used an fMRI and studied nineteen people play a game and either received or donated money that they won. The brain, more importantly, our unique frontal lobes, are evolving quicker due to giving from our hearts to other beings. Jordan Grafman, the leader of this happy project, asked nineteen fit volunteers to participate in a computer game while having their brains scanned by an fMRI. An fMRI is a machine that scans the brain for increased blood flow to the different blood vessels that accompany brain usage. The game gave out cash rewards and at the same time asked for donations to charities. They saw, because of the fMRI, that the structures that lit up when people received money were the ones that released Dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that associates with happiness and reward. "Dopamine may be the link between rewarding sensations of pleasure and long term memory". But the interesting thing was that when someone gave to a charity, the same places lit up and were more stimulated then when people receive rewards. This also activated a certain type of neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger from one neuron to another. This neurotransmitter is known as Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a "cuddle" neurotransmitter found everywhere. " Oxytocin is the attachment phase between the male and female". They found that the activity in the prefrontal cortex, something completely unique to the human race, was busier when people made very large donations. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in reasoning and decision-making.

The most significant part of the research was that they figured out that donating is a learned behavior. "Working memory is a significant part of the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex". "Tis better to give than receive" is one of the most famous verses in the Christian New Testament, and now it has been proven. Jordan Grafman and his team of scientists have found that giving a present to another being actually feels better than receiving a gift from one. Giving a gift activates your Dopamine and Oxytocin releasers, and prefrontal/frontal lobes and even evolves some of these areas. In the future, we could see if how much we give makes a difference in how much Dopamine or Oxytocin is released into our bodies. We could learn to share in a way that would make everyone feel as happy as giving or receiving the gift.

A Bit More to the Story
Clap, clap, clap! But before we make our green recommendations based this fascinating bit of work, there's a bit more to the story. Fact is, only adults get the big dopamine rush when they give gifts, not children, who are just the opposite; they get the big pleasure rush when they receive gifts, not give them.

As such, we can now create some simple green rules to not only maximize the joy of the season, reflected in dopamine levels, but also to minimize the impact of the environment as well, by reducing the number of "joyless gifts" that are exchanged. Here are the four rules:

  • Children should never give gifts to adults - As explained, kids get little joy from giving gifts, and adult receive little joy in receiving them. Why waste the planetary resources on creating the physical object? Forget these gifts.
  • Adults should always give gifts to children - Clearly, this is dopamine all around; adults enjoy giving, and kids enjoy receiving. Choose something from our Kids Holiday Gift Guide
  • Adults should give other adults gifts, that are in themselves gifts. This is a tricky one because adults like to give gifts but not receive them. Oftentimes, this one plays itself out as an agreement between parents and adult siblings that no gifts will be exchanged, then everyone goes ahead and buys something for everyone anyways because they want to make themselves feel good! In this case, the best course of action is to give nothing, which is ok and terrific for the environment, if you can deprive yourself of the joy. Another good idea is a donation to the charity of their choice. Failing these ideas, just go with what the Tyro recommends - booze.
  • Children should share in gifts with other children, that have no giver. - This one is even more tricky - how does one enjoy a gift that isn't even given? Aha, this is the miracle of the season, the true Christmas spirit. Frankly, how to generate this type of atmosphere is unclear but when it happens it feels great and is pretty low-impact on the planet - happy thoughts cost the Earth nothing. For starters, I suggest getting the kids high on sugar and let them run around hogwild - in this regard, the Tyro was absolutely right.

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