Columns, Imagine That

The Multiplication of Joy

It was cold and snowy outside, but indoors, bells were ringing and kids were lining up in front of the candy-cane marquee, waiting their turn to tell Santa what they wanted. Christmastime 1996 was special, though, because I was the one inside the iconic red suit: My first holiday season as Santa Claus. I was having a ball watching children’s eyes sparkle with holiday spirit. Things were going along as expected until one bright little girl sat on my knee, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Santa, what do you want for Christmas?”

I was struck silent by the absolute sincerity in this child’s eyes. She wasn’t trying to elicit promises of better gifts; she truly wanted to know. My hesitation caused the girl’s parents to helpfully whisper, “He wants cookies.” Their daughter patiently waited for a reply from me. I finally responded, “I want you to keep being a good girl.”

Laura Mann

Laura Mann

This incident got me thinking: What would Santa want for Christmas? It’s a deceptively simple question which alludes to so much more. The original St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop born into wealth in the third century CE, who donated his entire inheritance to the poor and devoted his life to helping the sick and needy. From the beginning, Santa has always been a giver. No doubt he’d want us to do the same.

The science of St. Nick

It seems St. Nick’s onto something here. Psychologists have found a strong connection between selflessness and stress reduction — perhaps that’s why Santa’s such a jolly old elf! Author and researcher Dr. Hans Selye writes that when people help one another, the gratitude expressed in return for this charity spurs the brain’s endorphin production, creating a sense of warmth and happiness. Harvard psychologist David McClelland analyzed the saliva content of students before and after viewing a film of Mother Teresa working among Calcutta’s poor. After watching the film, the results found a marked increase in disease-fighting antibodies, which suggests that the healthy benefits of charity extend to watching someone else’s good works.

The remarkable effects of good deeds on physical health aren’t just short-term either. Scientists at the University of Michigan monitored 2,700 men to see how social relationships affect mortality. Over the course of 14 years, the participants who volunteered regularly had death rates that were two and a half times lower than non-volunteers.

We know that the values imprinted upon our children in their formative years are carried with them into adulthood. It is especially vital that we emphasize the importance of giving and selflessness during the holidays, when our consumer culture bombards kids with a message of materialism.

One bright little girl sat on my knee and asked, “Santa, what do you want for Christmas?”

It’s been 13 years since that angel sat on my lap and forever altered the way I view the spirit of Santa. These days, I don’t wait for children to query about their Christmas wishes. Instead, I first ask each child if he or she would like to know what Santa wants for Christmas. Most kids are taken aback when I don’t act like the vending machine of toys that they’ve come to expect. Before they can recover, I tell them to make a list of the people they can help this holiday season, because every time they help someone, it makes them feel good inside. The person they help is happy, and so is anyone who witnesses their good deed. That’s three people benefiting from one act of kindness! Those three are in turn inspired to do good for others, and pretty soon you have nine people benefiting from one good deed, ready to multiply the gift over again. I call this the “Multiplication of Joy.”

Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Lewis Carroll wrote, “One of the deep secrets of Life — all that is really worth doing, is what we do for others.” This Christmas, remind yourself and your kids to take a little time away from the mad holiday rush and grant Santa’s Christmas wish through selfless acts. May you and your children have a wonderful, benevolent Christmas, and a happy year to come.

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Michael Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2009, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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