THE BLOG
12/19/2013 12:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

Slipping Into Your Holiday Genes

I'm going to tell you about how you can find last-minute gifts for the holidays feel happier and get healthy -- and never set foot in a mall.

I hate shopping. I think we're over-commercialized, and I'd rather have a root canal without the lidocaine than barge through department store doors at 2 a.m. on a "Black Friday." So a long time ago I gave up going out and buying useless gifts. Instead, I created my own form of gifting. And, as a scientist, I know something that very few people are aware of. You see, the kind of gifting I'm about to present affects our very genes. That's right. It's the gift-gene connection.

Here's how it works. First, there's the giving of strangers. I like to do random and anonymous gifting, or "paying it forward." No, I'm not talking about paying for the guy in front of me at a fast food restaurant drive in. I prefer to lurk around the layaway counter of a toy store or department store, and wait for a family that is putting $5 or $10 on basic clothing or gifts for their kids. After the parent shows up, pays what they can and leaves, I go up to the counter, identify myself as a someone doing a random act of gifting, pay off the balance, and have the clerk call the parent's cell before he or she leaves the store and inform them that they can pick up the goods. I sneak a peek and revel in their surprise and make a quick exit. Mission accomplished.

Why wait for the holidays? I love doing this year round. For example, I've got a serious sweet spot for members of the military, and any time I see a man or woman in uniform either with or without a family in tow, I watch intently for an opportunity to give. Since I seem to live in airports, this happens frequently. Say I see a military family at a food place, with kids yelling out for everything on the menu. I'll smile and as the parent is reaching for their wallet or purse, I'll move in and pay the bill. In these cases, I do identify myself, but only long enough to nod and say, "Thank you for your great service to this country."

Anyone can do this and I'm making the case that it's actually good for you to make a regular practice of gifting others, especially those you don't even know. According to a UCLA study, the very act of giving profoundly affects your health and wellbeing, right down to your genes. It's called "the happy gene effect."

Research announced this summer by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 's Barbara Fredrickson and UCLA's Steve Cole found that there really are "happy" genes. They compared two types of people. The first: You get up in the morning, eat a good breakfast, go to the gym, are pretty content with yourself, but you're self-contained; you're not doing a lot of reaching out like becoming a volunteer or participating in charities. These more self-centric folks were compared with people who are equally happy with themselves, but they do more for others by volunteering, connecting and giving of themselves whether in time, effort or financially. This is the pay-it-forward crowd.

In each group, the researchers examined specific genes that indicate body tissue inflammation, the kind that is associated with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. What they found was that when people who routinely gave of themselves, their kind acts were actually silencing -- methylating -- the genes that produce this toxic body inflammation. The less giving group had increased levels of inflammation. This cutting edge new gene science is called epigenetics, the study of how environment and lifestyle choices affect how a gene expresses itself to the rest of the body. My genes were happy with my giving and I didn't even know it until I'd read the research. Gifting others, as it turns out, gifts oneself.

Gifting can take many shopping-free forms. In addition to helping strangers, I also created my "what can I do for you" gift for friends and family. I give them a nice card, and I'll include the following: a simulated coupon that says "You can redeem this any time you want," and what I'll do is give of my time to do that thing I know this person really needs. So I have one friend who really struggles to find a dog sitter, and it's also expensive. So I offer to sit with her dog three times -- so long as I can bring my guy (a black German Shepherd) as a play date. Another friend is chronically disorganized and a clutter bug. She's desperate to get the decluttering started and just can't get it going. I gifted her with an afternoon to tear through two closets and help her schedule more. Hello, Goodwill!

A colleague was moving and needed someone to help him clean out his attic from hell. You know, the one with grandma's antiques and a pile of those nauseating reindeer Christmas sweaters. No problem. I gave him most of a Saturday and we got it done. Look, it could be anything. What you're really doing is saying that you know this person well enough to know what really bugs them and as you help them, your genes are initiating a domino effect resulting in enhanced health and wellness within your cells.

So, this holiday season, try a double dose of happy gene'ing. Get out there and randomly, anonymously gift people you don't know. Then sit down and really think about what you can do to give of yourself to family and friends. Their deep gratitude will fill you with endless joy, as you slip into your holiday genes -- all year long.