Did you know that gift-giving activates the regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect? This is especially true when particularly when the giftee is someone with whom we have a close relationship.1 In one study out of Switzerland, study subjects were given $100 and half of them were instructed to spend it on themselves, and the other half were instructed to spend it on others. Four weeks later, they performed fMRI scans on their brain and were able to measure activity in the brain associated with social sharing, generosity, pleasure, and happiness. The joy of giving also lasts longer than other forms of happiness.2 A study found that the happiness associated with giving did not decline, or declined much slower if they repeatedly gave gifts versus receiving gifts.

Giving doesn’t always have to be in the form of physical gifts!

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that people who volunteer are happier than those who do not. The sense of social connection, optimism, and purpose we get from volunteering are all associated with reduced symptoms of depression.4 Another benefit to volunteering is the leadership and life skills it can provide.

Surprisingly, Receiving Gifts Doesn’t Always Bring Happiness

Having to deal with toxic family members is quite common. There are two members in my own family who have said or written loving, kind words mixed with hurtful words, guilt trips, religious abuse, or passive-aggressive behavior so many times that receiving gifts from them is an anxiety-producing experience — maybe even a trauma trigger! I’ve told these stories in my trauma-informed workshops and written articles about one of them while protecting identities.

These are examples of “toxic” family members — who would never see what they do as toxic! I know I’m not the only one who has experienced these kinds of incidents. So I try to be “real” when discussing holidays to include these stress-inducing experiences many people experience alongside the cheery holiday greetings. My intention is not to be a downer, but to be authentic, real, and honest — and to give (and get!) tips for dealing with these family members, short of ending our relationships with them.

Of course, you are going to see articles and resources about Passive-Aggressive Toxic People in our newsletter and psychology magazines. Still, just this month Forbes — the business-focused magazine — had an article with some helpful tips I’ve reworded Toolshop® style:

Tips for Dealing with Toxic People

1. Go In With A Blank Slate: If you assume and prepare to be attacked, you will start the encounter in a defensive mode, which the aggressor will detect and target. Imagine you have an invisible bubble around you that repels negativity — it bounces right off you — but absorbs and releases love.

2. Don’t Take The Bait: If the toxic person is trying to get a rise out of you, don’t react! It rewards their bad behavior. You aren’t letting them get away with bad behavior, you just aren’t rewarding it. Setting boundaries with these folks is rarely effective and just leads to more arguments and conflict. Usually, avoiding them is best, but that’s hard to do during the holidays.

3. Know It’s Not About You: Don’t take whatever they say personally no matter how personally they attack you! Yes, what they are saying is about you, but their behavior is not about you…these folks are often narcissistic, so it’s really all about them! They are getting something from their behavior and it’s usually because they have their own unresolved hurts. “Hurt people hurt people.”

4. Have Empathy: As Brené Brown says in her cute YouTube video on Empathy, “Empathy fuels connection; Sympathy drives disconnection.” It’s hard for someone to continue being mean to you if you are kind to them. It’s a version of the “turn the other cheek” concept; even though they slap that cheek you don’t do the same back. That’s what they expect. That’s what they want. That’s what feeds their story, their narrative. So repeat steps 2 and 3 and when you realize someone who enjoys hurting others must be hurting themselves, it may help you not take things so personally and have empathy for what it must be like to be in their brain and body. Whew!

Count your blessings! Be grateful! And GIVE…of your love, your kindness, your understanding, and yes, also gifts.

Happy Holidays!


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years’ experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. Currently, she hosts the Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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