Give to Receive: The Science of KindnessGive to Receive: The Science of Kindness http://bodywhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Screen-Shot-2014-12-18-at-7.39.25-PM-1024x598.png 1024 598 BodyWHealth http://bodywhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Screen-Shot-2014-12-18-at-7.39.25-PM-1024x598.png
Gifts never move in only one direction. That’s the official word from social anthropologists. As in the laws of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The giver is always rewarded with return gifts of appreciation or respect. But that’s not all. Giving drives tangible health benefits for the giver that are profound stepping-stones towards BodyWHealth.
In my previous blog, we discussed the health benefits of social engagement. Social contact is important, but we maximize our gains when we go beyond simple contact to engage empathetically with others. I propose that giving may be the most powerful form of social engagement, and there is good science to back this.
The fancy scientific name for giving is “prosocial behavior” and includes closely related concepts such as generosity and empathy. Scientists have demonstrated that we start our lives with an innate bias towards generosity. Toddlers under the age of 2 are happier giving away treats than receiving them. More importantly, “costly” prosocial acts (generosity which disadvantages the giver), such as giving away their last treat, makes children happier than easy giving.
Giving is associated with happiness in adults too. In their book The Paradox of Generosity, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson report that adults who describe themselves as very happy volunteer on average 6 hours of their time to good causes each month while those who describe themselves as unhappy donate 90% less time. They also found depression prevalence 25% lower in adults that give away more than 10% of their disposable incomes.
Giving not only drives happiness, but health too. A provocative study published in 2013 in JAMA Pediatrics evaluated the health benefits of weekly community service in high school students. After only 4 months, adolescents that gave their time to others lost weight while non-volunteers gained weight. More interesting to me is that the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL6 (you may have read my description of this chemical as a notorious “bad guy”) is lower in those that volunteered their time than in their peers. IL6 and excessive inflammation are implicated as mediators of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. So giving may offer dramatic long-term health benefits.
The value of giving is not limited to happiness and health. Early prosocial behavior in children has also been shown to exert a strongly positive influence on subsequent academic performance and social development.
How does this all work? We discussed the role of serotonin in health in a prior blog. This neurotransmitter is increased in the “emotional brain” during social engagement and drives feelings of wellbeing. A different chemical, a hormone named oxytocin has been implicated in prosocial behavior. Oxytocin is released when people are empathetic and generous. Moreover, the same hormone actually drives empathetic behavior. Oxytocin just happens to be the critical hormone involved in breast-feeding, a highly empathetic act of personal generosity. No small coincidence, I’m sure!
To make this science even more interesting, researchers at Harvard have shown that generosity becomes self-reinforcing. Giving makes you happy, which in turn makes you more generous. So try it, enjoy it, and benefit from it!
As we approach the Festive Season for 2014, we would do well to remember the insight shared with us by Winston Churchill when he said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”. He clearly knew something about the science of giving before we scientists did. If you’re still struggling to find a gift for a loved one, I recommend a little book called “The Go-Giver”. Everybody should read this powerful parable that deeply influenced my own view on life.
May your life be blessed with and through kindness!