The Science of Giving

Jim Roberts, CEO
December, 7, 2016 -

For a long time, our society has clung to the idea that we are somehow hardwired to be selfish. And while there’s no denying this fact, there is now compelling evidence to prove that the pull that we all feel from time to time to do something generous is a foundational part of our humanity. As it turns out, there is a science behind the power of giving--we are also wired to do good!

Most of us have been taught early in life that it is better to give than to receive. Almost all faiths and beliefs promote goodness, helping others and generosity. Cross culturally, literature extols the benefits of generosity and giving–there is a universality for the virtue of giving. I have used this Winston Churchill’s quote many times: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” I also admire the Chinese proverb: "If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, become a generous giver." And, of course the Bible is replete with giving reference, such as Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

While the great bodies of literature wax strong about the virtues of giving, we now also have a large body of scientific research which provides compelling data to support the notion that giving one's time, talents and treasures is a powerful pathway to finding purpose, transcending difficulties, and finding fulfillment and meaning in life. The power of giving has a very positive physiological impact on the giver!

Altruism really is a Miracle Drug – it produces a “Givers High.” Seriously. Research experiment after research experiment has unequivocally demonstrated that even the thought of giving or helping others produces a marked change in brain activity. Just as the runner's high happens when a runner's endorphin levels rise, the helper's high happens when people perform good deeds for others. In other words, the helper's high is a classic example of nature's built-in reward system for those who help others

There is even stronger evidence that individuals who are suffering from a physical or emotional malady heal faster when helping others. In multiple research projects, “wounded-helpers” proved to be more self-confident, had better self-esteem and displayed less depression. In similar studies, people with chronic pain who counseled those with similar conditions experienced a drop in their own symptoms of pain and depression. Like I said, giving really is like a miracle drug.

Here are some interesting facts about the science of giving:

  • Research shows that spending money on others makes people much happier than spending money on themselves
  • Our brain’s pleasure and reward systems literally “light up” when we do a good deed, more so than we are the recipients of a good deed
  • When you give or do a good deed, your brain is flooded with endorphins, just like a runner, making you feel great
  • Your body is also flooded with oxytocin, a hormone which lowers stress levels and makes you feel more connected to others
  • A dose of oxytocin will also make people feel more generous and empathetic towards others, an effect which can last up to two hours
  • There is actually a physiological reasons why beneficiaries of generosity want to “pay it forward”
  • A single act of giving, kindness or generosity can actually create a domino effect, stimulating others to give
  • Giving people, as a group, live longer
  • In a study by UnitedHealth, of people who became regular givers and helpers, 76% felt healthier, 94% had a significantly improved mood and 78% felt way less stressed

Yes, there seems to be significant scientific validation to the passage: “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over ...” Not only from others, but by your own body! That’s really cool.

Giving should not be a seasonal or periodic activity--it must be our lifestyle. The more we produce generosity, goodness, kindness and care for others in our daily routines, the better others feel, and, the better we feel. More importantly, think about the positive social benefit and impact that could be produced by a pandemic of giving and caring! What a wonderful way to mitigate the hate, rage and meanness that is so prevalent today.

More importantly, we need to break the cycle of greed and “entitlement.” Starting with small children, we need to teach the value of giving instead of getting. The virtue of giving needs to be imprinted into the character of every child. The holiday season should be focused on opportunities to give to others and meeting other people’s needs. Instead of “wish list,” parents should be asking their children to create a “giving list.” By redirecting the focus from receiving to giving, we are not only teaching children a wonderful virtue, but we are also programming their brains to experience the joy and pleasure which comes from acts of generosity, kindness, caring and giving.

When I was a youth, we had shirttail relatives who treated Christmas very differently than anyone I’ve known. Every year, they would work through their church or social services to find a family that was truly in need. That family would become their Christmas project. Everyone in the family would either make or buy gifts, they would prepare food for a magnificent Christmas dinner, and they would take them bags and bags of groceries as well. I will never forget how excited the kids were each year to do this, and now I understand why! Yes, they would have a modest gift exchange themselves, but their real joy and delight came from their gift of love, generosity and compassion they poured out to a family in need!

Many blessings to all of you this Holiday Season – and may your joy be from what you give, and not what you get!