December 23, 2020
Long before research on the power of positive emotions became trendy, most people recognized that giving had the power to make not only the recipient of the gift feel good, but in giving, the giver was blessed with happiness as well.
Quotes from prime ministers to saints to artists embody this truth:
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
~ Winston Churchill
“For it is in giving that we receive.”
~ St. Francis of Assisi
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
~ Pablo Picasso
But why? Exactly what is it about giving something to someone else that causes us to feel good? Since the season of gift giving is upon us, we thought it would be interesting to explore the reasons behind the good feelings.
Back in 2008, a research team led by Michael Norton, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, conducted a project in which study subjects were asked if they thought giving money to someone else or spending it on themselves would make them happier. The majority of the study subjects predicted that spending money on themselves would make them feel happier than giving the money away.
In fact, just the opposite happened. They conducted several experiments which all came to the same conclusion, but the most interesting one was this: the researchers gave envelopes containing money, either $5 or $20, to students on campus. One group of students was instructed to spend the money on themselves (either $5 or $20) and they could use it to either pay a bill or get themselves a gift. The other group of students were told to use the money to get a gift for someone else or to give the money to charity.
The results? The people who spent the money on themselves that day did not feel happier that evening. But the ones who used the money to give to others were measurably happier. Plus, it didn’t matter whether it was only $5 or if it was $20, it was only in how the students used the money that made the difference. The researchers conclude that you don’t have to be a wealthy philanthropist to get joy from giving. Even a small amount of money contributed to others can make a difference in your happiness.
When you give, the hormone oxytocin (say “ox-ee-TOE-sin”) known as the “happy hormone” or “love hormone” is released from the pituitary gland deep within your brain. Interestingly, oxytocin has been shown to facilitate relationships with others and is strongly associated with positive social behaviors.
Perhaps best of all, other studies have found that when you give, not only does this make the recipient of your gift feel closer to you, you then also feel closer to them. As professor of psychology Barbara Lyubomirsky explains in her book, The How of Happiness, “Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably...fostering a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community.”
A 2010 study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Harvard showed that giving has a ripple effect by inspiring others to behave generously later on to other people. This can result in a spreading network that has the power to influence dozens or even hundreds of people. The original giver does not know and will probably never meet many or even most of those people. Such is the power of one small act.
And in this Season of Giving, what could be more important?
“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in
giving creates love.”
~ Lao Tzu 4th century BC Chinese philosopher