The secret science behind giving

Why giving is truly the best form of receiving.

Many of us will start the new year with renewed energy, not only to improve ourselves, but many of us will also have more altruistic aspirations. As the year wears on, we can lose our enthusiasm, as it increasingly seems that everybody wants something from us.

With the constant petitions for help comes the social phenomenon that all charities will know well:  compassion fatigue.  The phenomenon captures a feeling that many of us experience when we’re just plain worn out from trying to do so much for so many with so little. Often, we can feel like there are so many worthy causes that we become overwhelmed. 

While we may feel overwhelmed at times, social scientists are increasingly encouraging us to try and be altruistic, ironically enough, for our own individual benefit. While we may all experience a bit of compassion fatigue – the evidence shows that we are still happier than we would be if we didn’t give to others. 

Evidence from new brain imaging studies combined with compassion research is supporting the real truth of altruism:  the more you give, the more you get.  

Giving leads to greater wellbeing on all levels. A look at some of the compelling findings tells us why:

1. Giving has ensured our survival!  
Giving can cost us time, money and effort - precious resources for most of us.  Yet it now appears that giving may enhance our psychological wellbeing because it is pleasurable!  Positive psychology pioneers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggest that connecting with others in a meaningful way – such as when giving with compassion – helps us to enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds recovery from disease.  Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman’s brain-imaging studies show that the reward centres of the brain –activated when we experience pleasure, such as dessert, sex, or money – light up just as much when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves.  A study by Elizabeth Dunn looked at the pleasure of giving.  The participants of the study were given money.  Half were told to spend it on themselves and the other half were told to spend it on others.  Those who spent the money on others felt significantly happier than those who spent it on themselves.

2. Giving promotes cooperation, social connection, and wellbeing  
The old adage that “what goes around, comes around” sums up the law of reciprocity. After all, it’s hardly surprising that when you give, you are more likely to get.  Sociologists Brent Simpson and Robb Willer have found that when we give to others, our generosity is likely to be rewarded by others:  sometimes by the recipient of our giving, and sometimes, by someone else.  Such exchanges promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens both community and individual bonds. Strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity by strengthening our immune system (the genes affected by social connection are linked with those for immune function and inflammation).  Social connection helps us recover from disease faster and is correlated with lower rates of anxiety and depression.  Those with greater social connection are found to have higher self-esteem and empathy, and they experience more trusting, cooperative relationships. And the opposite is true.  One study showed that lack of social connection is worse for health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.  

3. Giving evokes gratitude
Whether we are on the giving or receiving end of a gift, the gift can bring forth feelings of gratitude, which is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds.  When we express gratitude to a close friend or romantic partner, our sense of connection to that person is strengthened.  Barbara Fredrickson, a “happiness researcher”, concludes that cultivating gratitude in everyday life is one of the keys to increasing personal happiness, boosting not only our own positivity, but also the positivity of others.

4. Giving is contagious
When we give to someone, the recipient of our giving isn’t the only one who benefits; the giving produces a ripple effect throughout a community.  A study by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis reports that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to repeat that generosity later, toward different people.  The researchers estimate that each person in a social network can influence hundreds of people, many of whom the generosity “originator” will not have met.  Giving has been linked to the hormone oxytocin (commonly known as the “cuddle hormone”) which floods us with feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others, inducing the “helper’s high”.  The high can last up to two hours, inspiring even more giving.  Have you ever heard news reports of one person at a drive-through coffee outlet paying for the coffee of those in the car behind them?  Such “random” acts of kindness are sometimes sustained in a chain of generosity lasting for several hours!

After reading about this research, you might well ask:  is this tendency toward giving learned or innate?  Contrary to conventional wisdom, research by Warneken and Tomasello suggests that we all have a “compassionate instinct”.  Children as young as two are known to engage in spontaneous helping - even when they must overcome obstacles to do so.   Research from the University of British Columbia has shown that even at the not-yet-socialised (and often terrible!) age of two, giving treats to others increases the toddler’s happiness more than receiving treats themselves.

This is not to say that compassionate behaviour cannot be increased by training.  Several studies show that even quick meditation practices can increase compassion.  But maybe you don’t need any training.  Perhaps it is enough to know that it is simply good to give - for others and ourselves.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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