Guest Blog - Giving and gratitude, some ideas for a (scientifically) happier Christmas by Ilona Boniwell of Positran

Ilona is the head of Positran, experts in the psychology of positive transformations

Christmas past

I am dreaming of a lovely family Christmas, and I don’t mind if is white or grey. I do, nevertheless, mind whether it works out or not, as well as how humanly and psychologically messy it will end up being.

Last Christmas our teens decided to surprise us by setting up a casino in the living room, dressing up as croupiers, and getting the adults (that’s me, my husband, my husband’s ex and his best friend) to be the clients. As lavish, extravagant and original as that might sound, the enjoyment of the process was rather affected by the fact that in preparing the casino set-up, the teens did not check the rules of the proposed game and a few minutes into it started arguing over the way forward. In fact, at one point, the only way forward was to end the game.

The previous Christmas one of the teens made a fuss over receiving a “wrong” version of a GoPro camcorder for a present. This left a sour taste in the mouth, and almost erased all other magical moments of that year’s celebrations, including the memory of our one-and-a-half year old Theodore delivering presents to their rightful recipients, tumbling and falling over, rising up and toddling again…

Two Christmases ago Hugo went down with a virus and my husband spent most of the feast in his bedroom trying to bring the fever down. As Hugo started showing signs of recovery, we stepped out on the terrace wrapped in warm blankets sipping mulled wine and saw Flip, our dog, collapsing into the pond having seizures. Flip was gone before the festivities were over, diagnosed with incurable brain cancer.

You won’t be too surprised if I tell you that I feel a little weary of Christmas. And I suspect I am not alone. A friend of mine is already freaking out over her in-laws coming to stay for a week and I overhead a colleague complaining that she always ends up as the one cooking Christmas meals for her family of fifteen. And, as far as blended families are concerned, no wonder it gets messy dividing the Christmas between Mum and Dad who, in turn, are dividing it between their parents and in-laws.



For me, the two Christmas secrets are “giving” and “gratitude”. Once the pillars of religion and spirituality, nowadays these acts are also amongst the best evidence-best interventions known to modern science.

How often do you go out of your way to help someone else, a friend, colleague or stranger perhaps? Take a few minutes to think about it. Maybe you ran an errand for your elderly neighbour, helped a busy mum carry her buggy up some steps or donated blood. Doing kind deeds frequently not only boosts your mood temporarily, it also leads to long-lasting happiness as well as making other people feel good too. So it’s a brilliant win-win activity, plus it needn’t cost you anything.

Researchers suggest a number of reasons why doing kind acts for others makes us happier. They make us feel more confident, in control and optimistic about our ability to make a difference. They may make us more positive about other people and enable us to connect with them better (a basic human need), which contributes to our happiness. What scientific studies also show is that acts of kindness have more impact on well-being if we do a variety of different things, rather than repeating the same activity.

“Wait a minute”, you might think, “this sounds nice, but when it comes to Christmas, it is pretty hard to think of acts of giving without putting a hefty price tag on them.” Well, allow me to disagree. What about home-made cakes and pies as Xmas presents for your neighbours? Or playing your kids’ favourite board game (even if it does bore you a little)? And as far as children and teenagers are concerned, I always insist that they do not buy presents for us. My favourite present from Jason one year was a voucher entitling us to twenty hours of help of any nature.

As a child you probably remember having to write thank-you letters to the friends and relatives who gave you birthday and Christmas presents. As an adult this is probably not something you do as frequently, if at all. It’s not that you’re not thankful for the things you have in life, just that you don’t often stop to think about it.

In fact, expressing your gratitude for something, or someone, whether in writing or verbally, is one of the simplest but most effective ways of increasing your happiness. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it, but there is overwhelming empirical evidence that people with a grateful disposition are more enthusiastic, joyful, attentive, determined, interested, helpful, optimistic and energetic than those who aren’t. Not only that, but grateful people have been shown to be less depressed, anxious, lonely, envious and materialistic. In an internet sample of over 5000 adults, gratitude was one of the top five character strengths consistently and robustly associated with life satisfaction. So if you want a tried and tested method to increase your happiness, what are you waiting for? There are numerous ways to express your gratitude. One of the most famous positive psychology interventions, the Gratitude Visit advises you to” Think of a person you feel grateful to for something that they have done for you in the past. Write a letter to them, describing what they did and what effect it had on you and your life. Once you have finished, give this person a ring and arrange an appointment to see them, preferably in their house. When you meet, read your letter out loud to the recipient”. Researchers explain the effects of gratitude by the fact that it promotes the savouring of experiences and does not allow people to take the positive aspects of their existence for granted, thus counteracting hedonic adaptation.

This year, I might just drop the usual Christmas cards, replacing them with the dancing and singing Christmas emails and instead put a whole lot of empty cards by the Christmas tree for my family to write some thank you and appreciation messages to each other. The plan is to hang them on the tree and read them out loud when the time comes. Let’s just hope it all works out as expected…

And if this doesn’t work out? Well, I would have to take refuge in “three good things”, an iconic positive psychology technique that prompts us to focus and be grateful for the things that went well. Given that its positive effects last as long as six months, it might keep me going until the summer.


Ilona Boniwell

Read more on happiness boosting interventions in Ilona’s book “Positive psychology in a nutshell” (The Open University Press)

Browse: I’m sure you can think of lots of kind things to do once you put your mind to it, but in case you need some ideas, why not take a look at the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website

Visit and click on “strengths cards” if you are looking for an original present for your loved one.