3 ways how giving becomes like receiving, as supported by studies

There is an old allegory that can be found in different parts of the world with slight variations. Basically, this tells a story of a man (or woman?) receiving a unique opportunity to visit both, heaven and hell while still alive and kicking in this world. First, he enters hell with nervousness and slight fear, expecting it to be a terrible and frightening place. Amazement shines on his face as he finds people seated around a lovely banquet table, piled high with delicious dishes, fruits, and refreshments! Wow, he thinks, perhaps hell is not so bad after all. When looking more closely, however, he realizes that everyone at the table are miserable. They are starving. People have long planks tied to their arms making it impossible for them to bend their elbows and so to carry food into their mouths in order to enjoy the abundance present. No one could eat a bite!

After witnessing this absurd situation, the man is lifted up into the heaven. To his great surprise, he finds the exact same situation present there! Food, planks, the whole show. But something is drastically different. Everyone is smiling, appreciating, and eating the delicious food laid out in front of them. The people present at the table are utilizing their arms tied stiff with planks and forks in their hands to pick food from the table and offering it to each other — carrying it all the way into their mouths. This way everyone is being satisfied and able to appreciate and be grateful not only for the abundance but of each other!

Studies about giving and sharing

Recent years have seen growing numbers in various interdisciplinary scientific efforts towards understanding human well-being and the sense of happiness, as well as the sources of both (POST, 2014). Studies approaching this field have often utilized methods relying heavily on honesty and accuracy of the self-reporting given by those participating, which have had obvious handicaps if you consider the need to establish any generalizations and conclusions. This has also been the case when an investigation into the relationship that giving and helping others, something you can refer as acts of philanthropy, have with our well-being.

Lately, however, these studies have begun to bridge the gap between quantifiable and qualitative dimensions of our experience. It has been seen that various inner states can actually be measured in our physical bodies through the interrelation existing between it and our thoughts and emotions (HEINRICHS, 2003)(STERNBERG, 2001). For example, a conflict and resistance in our inner experience may create a certain stress response in our bodies that can be measured through levels of various hormones, neurotransmitters, and in our nervous system activity. Some interesting points have emerged as a result of the efforts visible in these studies, and three are presented here for you to contemplate when engaging in the relationships in your life.

1. Giving to others as well as giving to ourselves is rewarding

This may be a no-brainer. It can be satisfying to receive something, no matter if it is given to us by another or by ourselves. Receiving may trigger our built in reward mechanisms that are physically visible. Besides giving to ourselves, giving to others (in form of prosocial spending) has also been found to trigger this (HARBAUGH, 2007), meaning that giving to others can make us feel good in a measurable way and hence enhance our well-being (ZAK, 2007) (DUNN, 2008). So is there a difference between giving to ourselves and giving to others, when considering our own well-being? According to findings of two studies (DUNN, 2008)(NORTON, 2013), people spending on others were found to experience a greater sense of happiness and health than those spending on themselves. So even though giving to oneself is naturally rewarding, giving to others might be even more! Preference to give and share has also been observed even in very young children (AKNIN , 2012)

2. Voluntary giving is the key

A study(HARBAUGH, 2007) looking into the topic of giving under the subjective perception of it either being a voluntary act, or something done under coercion, was surprised to find that both ways of giving may make you feel good. Although it can be reasonably argued that what we pay in taxes is frequently wasted in useless bureaucracy and other things with questionable beneficiality, the study suggests that even paying your taxes can be beneficial to your well-being. However, there was found to be a clear difference in the magnitude of this response between the two types of giving: When giving was done voluntarily, meaning from a subjective perception of doing it voluntarily instead of being done from a sense of guilt or obligation, the magnitude of reward response was greater. The finding illustrates the importance of our inner position as the ground from which our giving sprouts forth! It also challenges us to ask, are we only attempting to buy a certain reward by giving? or are we able to give without preconditioned expectations?

3. Giving can produce a positive feedback loop

One of the studies (AKNIN, 2012) tells us how the actual acts of giving and the understanding, or seeing the positive effects our giving has to the lives of its recipients, provide a feedback to the giver which further increases the measurable reward response in his or her body. Not only that, but it also makes us more prone to engage in a similar prospocial activity again in the future. Besides the possibility of this “feedback loop” being created within the giver, it has also been found to expand outwardly through the recipient as a ripple effect. The mere perception that another engages in an act of genuine giving and caring invokes a rewarding response not only in its recipient(MIKULINCER 2005), but also in others who perceive it happening. This has been measured for example through the correlation with enhanced discretion of Oxytocin (FELDMAN, 2014) after this event. Oxytocin has been found, among other properties, to enhance generosity and prosocial behavior among people. This makes it both a cause as well as an effect of the acts of giving to others. Another study has had similar findings that illustrate how those who receive are in turn more likely to give to others (ZAK, 2007).

So as a conclusion, we can see through various studies how giving is rewarding and beneficial in short term to our well-being, whether it is giving to ourselves or giving to others. The difference between the health effects, or at least the reward responses, of these two types of giving becomes apparent when we notice the effects of the positive feedback loop that can be triggered when we give to others. Not only in ourselves, but in the recipient as well. It seems that these have not been observed when giving only to oneself, and so could prove that giving to others is more rewarding in the long run. Also, as giving freely to others is found to be more rewarding than through coercion or obligation, it emphasizes the value of doing these deeds without expectations — physical or psychological. This way giving to others, especially in a way that the recipient understands or can perceive the generosity and sincerity behind the act, is not only rewarding to the recipient directly but also in turn enhances their generosity. Giving and kindness have also been found to be inspiring to others and so very contagious (FOWLER, 2010)(SCHNALL,2010), so these acts of giving may also affect positively those who witness them. This creates a positive ripple effect and can even increase the opportunities in the long run for the giver also to receive, at least in theory.

The benefits of giving to others, or philanthropic giving, although it may need a certain amount of healthy wisdom in its execution, can be potentially manifold compared to mere personal giving. This also reflects the Golden rule present in most of the spiritual teachings in the world. In the Bible, it is found at least within the saying, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12


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Picture from unsplash.com, by Jared Erondu

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