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3 ways to make giving feel extra good this holiday season

Practicing generosity, researchers found, can reduce stress, put us in a better mood, and even provide relief from pain

You don't have to be Ebenezer Scrooge to find it painful to part with your cash.

After all, you work hard for your money. And for that matter, you're not alone — the vast majority of folks don't think to give it away.

Fact: Only one out of seven Americans donates even 2 percent of their income each year.

But it turns out that being generous reaps rewards for the giver, as well as the receiver.

In their book, The Paradox of Generosity, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson reveal that giving of yourself also helps boost your health, wellness, and personal growth. Practicing generosity, they found, can reduce stress, put us in a better mood, and even provide relief from pain.

So why don't more of us embrace being charitable?

Smith and Davidson discovered that it's actually difficult to learn how to give — and to foster an attitude that makes you want to give all the more generously.

A lot of the roadblocks lie in external notions we have about giving (i.e., it's a nice thing to do, but not an essential one) or anxieties over not having enough of our own resources for ourselves — whether that's time, money, or simply energy.

But, Smith and Davidson argue, those who don't give generously are actually missing out on all the heart-happy benefits.

We spoke with Davidson to glean some tips that could help us all better embrace the spirit of generosity — and make giving feel extra good so we'll want to do more of it.

Tip #1: Use giving to help gain financial control

Some of the most generous people Davidson and Smith interviewed were relatively low earners, suggesting that "the barrier [to giving] is rooted in psychological factors," Davidson says.

In other words, stinginess isn't really about not having enough to give — it's about the fear of not having enough.

Interestingly, Smith and Davidson found that being charitable can actually help you conquer financial insecurity because deciding to give away, say, 10 percent of your income requires real planning, careful budgeting, and figuring out where you can cut back.

So taking the time to comb through the details of your finances often imbues people with a meaningful sense of control they might not have had otherwise.

Tip #2: Focus on charities you can truly get behind

Over the course of her interviews, Davidson discovered that if you give money because you feel external pressure or have an ulterior motive behind it — and not because you truly believe in the cause — then you don't get back the same emotional benefits that encourage real generosity.

For example, one man she spoke with, "Bill," doesn't consider himself to be a generous person — but he has a few dollars automatically deducted from his biweekly paycheck to give to the United Way.

Bill's donations are more about succumbing to social pressure at work — his reason for giving was due to the fact that it was frowned upon at his company if you didn't. As a result, Bill felt no connection to the organization, which did nothing to encourage more giving on his part.

What does encourage generosity, Davidson found, is supporting a cause that carries personal importance to you.

For instance, maybe you choose to donate to your alma mater because you want to help an underprivileged student. You'll feel a sense of satisfaction — and likely give more generously — knowing that your money will allow that student to discover a passion for neuroscience or literature, just the way you once did.

Tip #3: Stop giving "selfishly"

Yes, giving makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. But here's the tricky part: "Giving money away with the intention of feeling better about your own life doesn't work," Davidson says.

The main reason why generosity makes us happier and healthier is because it allows us to shift our focus away from ourselves. Research has found that altruistic behavior (there's no expectation of a reward) can decrease the number of negative emotions we feel — and even boost our immune system and cardiovascular function.

So to truly reap the personal benefits of charitable giving, it helps to think that, even by donating small amounts of money, you can actually make a tangible difference in someone else's life.

Ultimately, Davidson says, it's about realizing that "the world is not a perfect place, but that doesn't mean that I can't contribute or alleviate something."

This story was originally published on LearnVest. LearnVest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.

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