Get ready to throw out your pricey Whole Foods mega-vitamins because giving is becoming the next miracle drug. We’ve been taught to give to others since we were kids. Our mothers taught us to share with younger siblings; our elementary schools held bake sales to benefit children in need; and we donated our outgrown clothes to the homeless. Teaching kids to give builds moral character and the ability to empathize with those around them. Today, classroom canons include The Giving Tree and The Giver, both of which emphasize the ability to think beyond one’s self. The thinking has been that fostering an aptitude for giving would result in compassionate adults, and in turn, would cultivate a healthier, happier community.
The truth is that giving just plain feels good, with or without a moral compass to guide us. Seeing my younger sister’s face light up with joy when I handed her my favorite Barbie (even when her scissors came dangerously close to her perfectly coiffed head) was probably the best feeling in the world.
Scientists have long been baffled by this phenomenon: why would we, as self-serving humans, give something for nothing in the evolutionary race for survival? It turns out that doing a good deed activates the mesolimbic system in our brains (which rewards us for things like food and money) and the parts of our brain that regulate feelings of trust and social attachment. Dubbed “the helper’s high,” giving can flood our brains with a dopamine-like euphoria. Jorge Moll’s 2006 National Institute of Health study was one of the first to test this, finding that giving to charitable organizations and receiving money for individual gain both stimulated the same part of the brain.
Other scientific studies have shown the incredible impact giving has on mental and physical health, as Stephen Post and Jill Neimark further discuss in their book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People. Giving can lower blood pressure, heighten self-esteem, reduce stress, and decrease mortality. Giving also has the power to push aside negative emotions, like anger and envy.
Science has even found proof that altruism is very real on a genetic level, seen through the gene variant AVPR1a. This gene enables a social-bonding hormone, called arginine vasopressin, to act on brain cells. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem conducted a study in 2007 which examined 203 participants – each of whom was given $12 with the choice to give all or a part of the money to another anonymous participant. The findings were astonishing: those with AVPR1a gave 50 percent more money than those without the variant.