9 Dec 2019

Giving at Christmas

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have the most profound impact upon us. This week I received a couple of unexpected compliments from people I respect. These made me feel valued and my spirits were buoyed for several days. I was also asked to a party at the home of a dear friend which was a warm, considerate gesture. When people give their time and energy to be kind like this, I am reminded that giving is a thoughtful, generous, empathetic act. I’m also reminded of how beneficial it is to give.

Giving is good for our health. It decreases stress, positively impacts people with chronic illness and it is a boon for older people who volunteer, as researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered. These senior citizen volunteers are less likely to die over a five-year period than non-volunteers. We know, from fMRI technology, that giving activates the same parts of the brain which are stimulated by food, and that altruism is hardwired in the brain- it’s pleasurable! Helping others may also stimulate us to feel our lives are more meaningful.

Giving makes us feel happy. When we give time, money, expertise, goods and money to charities, regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, are activated. This creates a ‘warm glow’ effect. Selfless behavior like this, scientists believe, releases endorphins in the brain, producing the ‘helper’s high.’ Giving has also been associated with the release of oxytocin, a hormone which prompts feelings of euphoria and connection to others. If we are regularly magnanimous during our lives it appears to influence our long-term wellbeing and happiness.

Interestingly, new research to be published in the International Journal of Happiness and Development investigates the role of social connection in giving. Researchers from Simon Fraser University (Canada) and Harvard Business School (U.S.A) concluded that donors feel happiest if they give to a charity via a friend, family member or social connection, in contrast to an anonymous donation to a notable cause.

Giving helps us forget our own problems. It distracts us from our own negative thoughts and worries. Sydney positive psychology expert Dr Tony Grant (University of Sydney) reports that focusing on why we are giving is important. “Your attention is placed on making other people feel better, not on worrying about yourself.

Giving promotes cooperation and social connection. “Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably,” writes Lyubomirsky in ‘The How of Happiness’, and this “fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community.” Several studies by sociologists have suggested that when we give, our munificence is likely to be rewarded by others in the future.  This might be the person we gave to, or someone else. We know that having positive social interactions is fundamental to physical and mental health. Our links to others are strengthened so that trust is built and we cooperate more frequently.

Giving is contagious. A study by James Fowler of the University of California (San Diego, U.S.A), and Nicholas Christakis (Harvard, U.S.A), published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, shows that when one person behaves with bounteousness, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people.

Give to organizations with transparent aims and results. According to Harvard scientist Michael Norton, “Giving to a cause that specifies what they’re going to do with your money leads to more happiness than giving to an umbrella cause where you’re not so sure where your money is going.” This is why we need to decide what we feel passionate about and what’s right for us. If we really believe in what we are doing, we are more likely to do it over a long period.

The Term One holidays are the culmination of months of work, a lot of which has been viewed through the lens of our ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, too, one key prong of which is give. Many of us at the College are eagerly awaiting a chance for more sleep, a reduction in school work, fun times with family, reading more books and time to hang out with friends. The holidays are also ideal for reflecting on what we value, our priorities, goals and for acknowledging our blessings. They give us space for giving thanks, for feeling terrific about our ‘giving’ efforts this year and to consider how, in 2020, we can do even better, perhaps just by giving away our smiles!

References – 

How Giving Makes Us Happy

Being Generous Really Does Make You Happier

5 Ways Giving Is Good for You

Why It Feels Good to Give

The Secret to Happiness Is Helping Others

Giving to Others Can Help You Live a Healthier and Happier Life