The moral of the classic Charles Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol, is that being generous leads to a happier life, while penny-pinchers become grumpy and miserable.

As you might remember, the storyline is that during the night Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who show him his past, present, and future. He wakes a changed — and generous — man.

The connection between being generous and feeling good about ourselves can’t be denied. We are by nature caring. It feels good to respond to those in need. But it is not as black and white as this story wants us to believe.

Generosity is a fluid, moment-by-moment, decision-making process. Each day we have the opportunity to thoughtfully respond to requests for our time, energy, or money.

Some days it seems relentless: emails requesting donations, sincere down-and-out folks asking for money, and friends needing a bit of help on a project.

It simply is not possible to help all of them. How does one choose?

If you are a regular reader of mine, you know I have a history of feeling overwhelmed by the demands of my life. My pattern of over-giving has been a main contributor to that history. Essentially, I have had a habit of doing more for others than was realistic, or even healthy.

The last few years I have made great strides in bringing my life into a balance; reining in my helping tendencies has been a big part of the change.

A comment by Lynn Twist, a global activist, speaker, and author, helped me better understand how to approach choices regarding volunteering and giving.

To paraphrase her: The world situation, and the many places of need, can leave us feeling overwhelmed and powerless. But those feelings can be countered by finding what you can do well and fully committing. If we each play our part, in time, we will see the change we imagine is possible.

From her comment I realized that regardless of how much I do or give, I will always have a sense that it isn’t enough. Recognizing this helped me shape a path to a healthier approach.

Now, I decide ahead of time where I will donate.

  • I have set up auto-payments to a few nonprofits I believe in.
  • I give priority to helping friends in need and my local community over larger, generic requests.

Now, I make choices to volunteer based on what I enjoy doing.

  • Performing repetitive tasks grounds me, so I say yes to helping friends pack and move.
  • Facilitating groups comes naturally to me, so I volunteer doing new-member orientations for a local, work-share program.

This framework doesn’t preclude handing cash to someone with a sign in front of the grocery store or spending time helping with a fundraising event, but it does give me guidelines. I know that regardless of what else I do, I have my giving plan in place. And I trust my plan because it has proven to be both realistic and healthy.

There is a lot of pressure on us at this time of year to do more and give more. I recommend you create your plan for giving — one that nurtures you. Send me a note and let me know how you handle the meaningful choice of giving from the heart.