The act of giving doesn’t just make the recipient feel good, it actually incites the brain of the giver to release feel good hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, which not only makes them feel happy as well, but can provide them with a variety of health benefits on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.
Yes, indeed, the receiver of a gift experiences joy, and feels valued, appreciated and more connected to the giver. However, it turns out that the person doing the giving actually receives much more than the person receiving the gift.
This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high”, because altruistic acts stimulate the brain in a similar manner as mind-altering drugs. What’s even more amazing, is that just the “thought” of giving can bring on these feel good brain changes, so the benefits begin before you even take action.
So, ironically, when we give gifts, we receive a gift in return. Study after study has consistently found the following benefits from the act of giving:
- Increases happiness
- Reduces stress
- Lowers heart rate
- Boosts immune system
- Increases life expectancy
- Alleviates depression and anxiety
- Experience less aches and pains
- More energy
- Higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth
- More empathy and compassion
- Deeper and more fulfilling social connections
Not only that, these benefits are contagious. Acts of generosity have a ripple effect, inspiring others who experience and witness the act to be more giving themselves, and promoting feelings of goodwill all around. Therefore, one simple act of giving by one person can multiply and potentially affect hundreds of other people, some of which you may not even know. So the act of giving is truly one of those gifts that keeps on giving in the most literal sense. I would venture to say that this is the result of mirror neurons.
However, there is one caveat, your acts of kindness must be sincere. You must be giving from the goodness of your heart, not because you hope to get something in return. If you give out of a sense of obligation or because someone else made you do it, then it can have the opposite effect. Along the same line, it is not beneficial if you give too much of yourself. Like all things in life, balance is the key.
Studies have found that many different types of giving are associated with these benefits besides giving material goods or volunteering time, including giving money through online contributions or writing a check. Even the simplest acts of kindness like lending a listening ear or a strong shoulder to lean on, can be just as powerful. What you give is not what’s important, the magic lies in the giving.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that we are hard-wired to give and be rewarded in order to strengthen our social bonds, which ensures survival of the species. So, as you go about your gift giving this holiday, it may be interesting to reflect on these fascinating biochemical dynamics that are taking place behind the scenes, stimulating all those smiling faces, warm hearts and goodwill.
Moll, Jorge et al., “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103, no. 42 (2006)