The more you give, the more you get. This conflicting concept is an oft-repeated theme across centuries and cultures for good reason.
As humans we seek meaning and connection. One of the best ways to achieve a more healthy, purposeful, and happy life is to practice generosity.
Lucky for all of us who seek proof before we try things, several researchers have spent their careers studying how and why practicing generosity creates happiness.
Researching generosity and happiness
In their book, The Paradox of Generosity, Dr. Christian Smith, Director of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative, and research fellow Hilary Davidson, use a mixed method of surveys and interviews to dive into how generosity affects the outcomes of happiness in American lives.
The chapters of the book start with empirical evidence of how generous practices improve the well-being of practitioners and end with qualitative case studies demonstrating the dynamics of the role of generosity in people’s lives.
One major conclusion of the book is that to reap the rewards of generosity, the act of giving must be desired and not self-serving. Inauthentic generosity does not lead to happiness.
For more proof regarding why generosity makes us happier, other researchers have looked directly into the brain for insight.
Previous research published in Nature Communications by Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, both from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland, mapped a neural link between generosity and happiness using functional MRI (fMRI). The researchers analyzed two groups of participants who pre-committed to spend a weekly monetary endowment. The experimental group pledged to spend their endowment on others compared to a control group who committed to spend the weekly endowment on themselves. The interesting aspect to the study is that the participants did not receive or spend any money during the experiment. The fMRI analyses were performed as participants were given decision-making tasks relative to the endowments before distribution. The results of their experiments showed the pre-committed “giving” group, compared to the control group, displayed much greater activity of two brain regions, the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), a part of the brain correlated to altruistic behavior, and the “happiness-related” brain area of the ventral striatum. This study provides evidence that generosity can change brain activity in ways that increase feelings of happiness even if a generous act is just imagined.
An important finding of Tobler and Fehr’s research is that the neural link between generosity and happiness is dependent upon an individual committing to be generous to override selfish motives. This finding concurs with Smith and Davidson’s conclusion that giving makes us happier, but only if it isn’t self-serving.
How to put proof into practice
There is much more evidence supporting the connection between giving and happiness, but here are two takeaways to put into practice:
1. Giving comes in many forms. Pick a way to give that is true to you, for example, donating money, volunteering time, giving attention, providing an ear, visiting relatives, pet-sitting, mentoring, passing down knowledge, training, supporting other’s choices, etc.
2. Find a way to pre-commit your generosity to make it easier to sustain and engage the TPJ, for example, join an organization that you believe in, make a public pledge to donate money, set-up a standing meeting to meet a friend, commit to a mentoring organization, etc.
The research illustrates that giving can make us happier but only if our generosity is authentic.
Julia Fletcher founded JEFS Storytelling Arts to use her unique research skills and artistic talents to create custom visual stories that help clients' increase engagement and promote the education of their audience.