The Gift of Giving

Imagine something that has been proven to make you happier, healthier and more confident while being environmentally friendly, and having absolutely no adverse side effects. I am not referring to a new miracle drug or infomercial for aroma-therapy candles, but simply the act of giving. People have long known that altruism carries its own rewards. History is filled with references to the fact that in giving there is also receiving, however, there is still some debate as to why.

In his latest op-ed piece Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex, and Giving, Nicolas Kristof claims that giving leads individuals to live happier, more fulfilling lives (so far so good). Yet, he goes on to argue that because of this giving is, in fact, a selfish act. He demonstrates that we give not necessarily out of our interest for others, but because we feel good doing so.

While I don’t believe it was Kristof’s intent, he has fed the flames of an old debate, that volunteers and philanthropists aren’t out to help others, but to feel good about themselves. As an economics student I have heard this argument before, that of “Homo Economicus”, or the economic man. The premise of the Homo Economicus model is that human behavior is solely dictated by self-interest, or rather everyone is out for themselves. Under this model firemen wouldn’t run into burning buildings, there would be little volunteerism, and as Kristof asserts, charity would be self-interest in disguise. Yet, firemen do run into burning buildings, we do volunteer a substantial number of hours (over 8 billion hours in 2009), and we give an immense amount to charity ($230 billion in 2008 (see Adnan’s article posted back in June). So what’s wrong with this explanation?

While there is no denying that being altruistic feels good, emerging research tells us it is for a completely different reason then self gain. It turns out we give because we are social creatures. In a recent study participants were asked to either keep a $128 research stipend for themselves, or donate part of their stipend to charity all while being monitored on an MRI. When subjects chose to give (and they often did) their brain activated “reward pathways” as if they were fulfilling a selfish act such as eating; however these pathways were stimulated by regions associated with social, not selfish behavior. The conclusion of course being that we are innately driven to give not out of selfish, but communal interest.

Within the greater context of human interaction such a behavior makes sense. Being group-oriented creatures, what tends to be in the interest of one is in the interest of all. Yet, we must admit that sometimes our selfish desires blind us to what is truly best for our community, and ultimately ourselves. Thus, our innate drive to give is our brain’s way of subconsciously combating our selfish tendencies of “Homo Economicus”, which explains why we give above and beyond what is purely advantageous to us. This research also tells us that giving to communal needs can be just as instinctively rewarding as fulfilling personal needs, such as food or shelter. This finally explains why those of us who give often are found to be much happier than those of us who don’t give at all. And, there is no refuting that happy people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

So what does this all mean in practice? The next time you are having a down day, happiness may not be found in another latte or a new pair of shoes, but a donation. Intuitively we know that a latte will only make us happy until we reach the bottom of our cup, but giving someone the amazing gift of a healthy child or an education will give us reason to be happy for days, months, and even years to come. When we focus on giving rather than getting we not only help others, but ironically help ourselves, which we know, buried within the depths of our brain, is the gift of giving.

Kristof’s article:

Jorge Moll et al., “Human Fronto–Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006).

Volunteer statistics:


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