WE’VE all experienced how great it feels to give to someone we love or who is genuinely in need. But did you know there’s scientific validation that it does a whole lot more than just help people in need and feed our egos?
Ever since scientists discovered fMRI scanners, understanding what parts of the brain are in use when we do different activities has become far simpler. Scientists at the National Institute of Health in the United States began experiments in the late 1990s to understand where empathy and generosity come from.
One of their first experiments was with 19 people who were given a sum of money and a list of charities. Every time a charity popped up, they could decide whether to donate, refuse to donate or keep the money in their own reward account.
We love giving when we feel it’s right
What excited the researchers about the experiment was that every time the group found a cause they felt was worth donating to and gave to it, their midbrains lit up. In neurospeak, the midbrain is our reward centre. It lights up when we crave and get great food or sex. What made the findings even better was that the same region lit up when they put the money aside for themselves.
In effect, our brains feel as good giving to a good cause as they do when we receive an unexpected reward. But that isn’t all. Giving doesn’t just make you feel good it can also have positive effects on your health. Just like exercise releases endorphins, lowers blood pressure and reduces depression, giving to a cause we believe in can make us feel less depressed.
The popular “feel good” chemicals in our brains, like serotonin (which mediates moods), dopamine (helps us feel good) and oxytocin (helps us bond and feel compassion) are all released when we give to others. This is great because these chemicals give us addictive highs, and giving is a great way to get these highs.
It’s more than just the money
Donating money to a good cause may light up reward centres in the brain, but giving doesn’t necessarily have to be always be about parting with money. It can even mean giving your time to a person in need or sharing essential provisions at the time of a natural calamity.
In a study on the relationship between social network and physical health, scientists found that participants with a higher tendency to give social support to others reported receiving “greater social support, greater self-efficacy, greater self-esteem, less depression, and less stress than participants with a lower tendency to give social support to others.”
Another study, by BMC Public Health found that volunteering to help others regularly — like serving folks food at a soup kitchen or reading to the blind — can reduce your chances of early mortality by 22%, compared to folks who don’t participate in such activities.
This means something as simple as sharing your time and showing empathy can have a radical effect on your physical well-being. With a range of positive physical changes and even the likelihood that you’ll live longer, giving presents a great case to get out there and start to share.
- Find causes you care about and to give your time, money or skills here.