Around this festive time of year a lot of emphasis is placed on the giving and receiving of presents. We all love to get a present but the research evidence would suggest that there is a huge amount to be gained from the process of giving.
We have all given at some time during our lives and we all know how good that can make us feel. However unselfish or magnanimous the gesture, we actually feel good by giving and if we get positive feedback from our generosity, the sense of pleasure is heightened further.
Giving may mean giving a present but more broadly, giving includes giving up your time to help others, donating your skills or talents for free and of course, gifting money or personal goods.
The Economist, James Andreoni wrote in 1989 of the warm glow that comes with giving and went on to suggest that our love of giving is driven in part by the positive feedback feelings that it induces. He rather harshly called this ‘Impure Altruism’.
Psychologists now talk of the ‘helper’s high’ as a direct comparison with the ‘runner’s high’ inducing the release of endorphins in the brain. Helper’s high is probably caused by a mix of several feel-good chemicals, not only endorphins, but serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin all of which combine to stimulate pleasure and joy.
This pleasurable feedback mechanism is hard wired into our brains. We have evolved and developed to be generous, helpful and kind to each other in order to help us survive. Our ancestors would have been very vulnerable as individuals and needed to work together and take care of each other if their families and communities were to thrive.
Charles Darwin described sympathy as our strongest basic instinct. He recognised that it was not just about survival of the fittest. The best chances of surviving and thriving came from working together and supporting each other. Over millions of years we have evolved behaviours and feelings that drive us to connect with each other, to support one another and to show care, compassion and empathy.
The development of functional MRI scanning of the brain has allowed us to demonstrate just how the brain reacts to giving. Monitoring brain function when donating money for example has shown that the mesolimbic reward system of the brain lights up when we are giving. This is the pleasure and reward centre of the brain. The very same area that lights up when we receive a gift, when we eat dessert or when we have sex.
Little wonder that this time of year is a pleasurable time, when both giving and receiving presents lights up the mesolimbic system like a proverbial Christmas tree.
So giving makes us feel good but it actually does a great deal more for our health and wellness.
For starters, regular giving makes us live longer. One study of those over 55, showed a 44% reduction in the risk of dying in a 5 year period just by giving. It reduces blood pressure in the elderly leading to less heart disease and strokes. Giving results in fewer admissions to hospital and it has been shown to reduce belly fat, to lower blood sugar levels and can even reduce LDL cholesterol.
How healthy is your lifestyle?
It’s not just the elderly who can get these physical benefits either, studies in high school students have shown weight loss, reduced levels of inflammation and improved lipid levels within 2 months of undertaking a simple volunteer program, giving up their time.
Giving can also help us with chronic disease and even addiction.
There are studies which show reduced pain and less depression in Chronic pain sufferers who support each other. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferers who help and support other MS sufferers report increased self-confidence, better self-esteem and less depression too. And alcoholics who help other addicts have significantly reduced relapse rates and once again, are less prone to depression.
We have touched on depression but giving can have a spectacular impact on many aspects of mental health and wellness.
Multiple studies into volunteering and giving report higher satisfaction with life, improved mood, reduced depression and anxiety, increased meaning and purpose to life and enhanced social interaction.
But the list of psychological benefits just goes on, greater self-esteem, enhanced feelings of worth, increased perception of capabilities and better self-acceptance.
These wonderful positive emotions and behaviours transcend all age groups with studies in the elderly, those in mid-life, high school students and even in toddlers.
A study in 2012 showed increased happiness in 2 year old children who shared their toys and treats particularly when they gave the treat away and lost out themselves. Sharing is great but giving is best.
Enjoy the gifts you receive this year but for real health and wellness focus on your giving. Be generous, be kind, be loving and compassionate, give as much as you can and it will come right back in spades.