At one time or another, most of us have been urged to “give till it hurts.” But generally, giving feels good — and research shows that it can be good for us, too.
So in this installment of The Living Experiment, we discuss our instincts to share with others and the mutual benefits that giving can confer on our mindset and mood as well as our physiology.
We look at the origins of our sharing instincts, and we explore the ways that generosity serves both the giver and recipient, including the flood of feel-good chemicals our bodies release in response to these acts.
We also consider the ways that giving, when done without love or joy, tends to backfire, creating anger, resentment, and regret.
Finally, we offer some experiments to help you explore your own generous impulses and refine them in ways that work for you.
Why Giving Is Good for You
A large body of research (including troves collected by Stanford University School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) has shown that generous acts produce a multitude of biochemical benefits.
Even as we contemplate giving or helping, our hypothalamus responds by pumping out a variety of anti-inflammatory, pro-social, and otherwise health-promoting neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, which stimulate the brain’s reward pathways and help elevate mood.
Just witnessing the generosity of others can trigger a mild version of what’s known as the “helper’s high,” and actively giving or helping is the most reliable way to enjoy generosity’s body–mind payoffs.
The Evolutionary Imperative to Share
Historians have observed that we are genetically primed toward giving by our ancestral, hunter-gatherer heritage. While humans lived in nomadic tribes, their daily subsistence and long-term survival called for cooperation and the communal pooling of resources. Those who were generous in providing for others would have been the most likely to succeed — not just in surviving, but also in reproducing and passing along their genes.
Though we’ve been programmed to think of “survival of the fittest” as a grim competition, game theorists posit that it may also be a generosity contest.
Recent plant research suggests that the instinct to help and give is by no means limited to humans. Trees can and do share carbon and other resources through a vast, underground fungal network known as mycorrhiza, sacrificing nutrients and raw materials for the benefit of their neighbors miles away.
The Problem With Giving Too Much — and Not Enough
Giving offers many benefits, but giving too much can invite trouble. Giving beyond our means (or even our desire) doesn’t just deplete our resources and destabilize our systems; it tends to build resentment, bitterness, and hostility toward those we are ostensibly trying to help. So if you are overgiving or giving without joy, it’s worth reflecting on the intention behind your gifts.
We tend to think of giving in terms of money or goods, but generosity of the heart, spirit, and mind can be even more transformative. If you’re judging, laying blame, or holding a grudge, sometimes the very best thing you can give another person is the benefit of the doubt.