A Guide To The Science Of Giving
Develop an abundance mindset, give freely, feel fulfilled
Last weekend we went out to enjoy Madrid’s gorgeous weather in the park. My three-year-old son Rafa started playing with a new truck. The kind of toy with all the moving parts, lights and colors that can make a kid go mad at that age. At some point, another kid roughly his age approaches him and says:
“Hi, can I play with your truck?”
I braced for the classic in-your-face “No. It’s mine” of my three-year-old, and got ready for the awkward smile exchange with the other kid’s parent. But instead, my son replied:
“Yes, here you are.”
I could not believe my eyes. The other kid, grateful and somewhat surprised, responded with “Thank you! Would you like to play with me?” And so they went to enjoy each other’s toys in the sand.
It was such a small moment, but it reminded me of the importance of giving and how it helps us lead more fulfilled lives. I’ve learned a lot about the science of sharing over the years and today, I’d like to share that knowledge with you.
The Abundance vs. The Scarcity Mindset
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.” — William James
My son had unknowingly chosen to believe in a paradigm of abundance. This concept became popular thanks to Steven Covey and his best-selling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
The paradigm of scarcity is one in which you consider life to be one big pie. A global zero-sum game. If someone takes a piece, then there is less pie for everybody else. Your gain is my loss. People in this mindset are defensive. Worried about protecting what they have more than they are willing to grow out of their self-imposed boundaries to achieve more.
People living in an abundance mindset believe, instead, that there is enough out there for everybody. That a partnership may be better than going solo. That taking care of stakeholders matter. That decision making, profits and good ideas are worth sharing to build something bigger than themselves.
Abundance Is Practical
Embracing a giving mentality in life is not only the right thing from a moral perspective. From a much more practical point of view, it has a phenomenal impact on our psychological well-being and can be a core driver of our success in life.
Let’s explore why this is the case.
Our Brains Are Wired To Give…
“Suppose you could be hooked up to a hypothetical “experience machine” that, for the rest of your life, would stimulate your brain and give you any positive feelings you desire. Most people to whom I offer this imaginary choice refuse the machine. It is not just positive feelings we want: we want to be entitled to our positive feelings.” — Dr. Martin Seligman
In 2014, a study led by neuroscientist Molly J. Crocket shed light on how much humans care about others relative to themselves. The results were surprising. They showed that, on average, people were willing to pay twice as much money to prevent someone else receiving an electric shock than the amount of money they would pay to prevent receiving the same amount of shock themselves.
At first, the conclusions seem puzzling. How does this fit with our survival bias, our innate sense of self-protection in the face of danger? A little experiment may help us understand this apparent contradiction.
In the next few days, do the following two things:
- Something fun.
- Something altruistic.
Plan both events and write about how you think doing those two different acts will make you feel. Then, immediately after completing the two activities, write down how you actually feel. At the end of the day, write down how you feel again, long after both events happened.
More likely than not, the high of doing something fun will last for a little bit and then fade away. It is a satisfaction that consumes itself shortly after the activity ends. If you go to the cinema and you enjoyed the movie, you will feel good after leaving the premises, but you won’t carry that feeling much longer after that.
However, if you perform a random act of kindness the feeling-good effect will endure for hours after the event happened. Try helping a little boy with their homework, or listening to someone in need. Or donating to a cause you truly believe in. The positive feelings stemming from the altruistic act will last for a long time after the event happened.
… And Positive Psychology Knows Why
Positive psychology is the field behind the scientific theory of happiness. Not so long ago, psychology focused only on helping troubled minds go back to a healthy state; Patients suffering from depression and other mental disorders. It sought to bring these patients back from “-10 to 0” on the well-being scale.
Positive psychology, on the other hand, looks to answer the question “what can make a healthy mind thrive?”. It looks scientifically into how we can go from “0 to +10” on the well-being scale. The father of positive psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman, author of books like “Authentic Happiness” and “Learned Optimism” and the founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
After years of research, he came up with 5 core pillars that act as the infrastructure to our psychological well-being and happiness. It is called the PERMA model:
- P for Positive Emotion: feeling good, optimism, pleasure and enjoyment.
- E for Engagement: doing fulfilling work, having exciting hobbies, immersing oneself in a sense of “flow”.
- R for Relationships: deep social connections, love, intimacy, emotional and physical interaction with others.
- M for Meaning: having a purpose in life.
- A for Accomplishment: setting and pursuing goals, realizing your ambition, living with a sense of achievement.
You can experience all of these in a single act of giving, whether it’s sharing a meal with a friend or donating a large sum to a good cause.
Why Giving Fulfills Us
Giving adds to our lives in many different ways, but is also exactly in line with the PERMA model.
- When we give, we generate positive emotions. This, among other things, triggers a physical reaction: the release of dopamine. This hormone is secreted by the brain and regulates pleasure. It also helps us create habits by stimulating the repetition of the activity that brought us pleasure in the first place, over and over again.
- Giving also helps us make our relationships more engaging. It enhances the quality of our interactions with others. To receive the appreciation of someone we have just helped is not only rewarding at an individual level, but also a powerful way to cement our social bond with that person.
However, giving goes well beyond facilitating positive emotions or better interactions with others. It can become a profound driver of our success in life, by contributing directly to the meaning and accomplishment components of the PERMA model.
Giving As Purpose
In “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Penn’s psychologist Angela Duckworth, I learned about Kat Cole. Cole started her career waitressing at Hooters while finishing her high school. She later rose up to become vice president of the company at age 26. Today, Kat Cole is Group President of Focus Brands, an investor, humanitarian and advisor.
Here’s her attitude on giving:
“By doing good for just one person, in just one moment, you can affect the trajectory of many things, of many lives, all over the world. Even if in some situations it’s not easy to be kind, gracious or positive, keep in mind it’s not just that moment that you are affecting, it’s many moments into the future.”
She differentiates between productive achievers and destructive achievers. As per her own description in a recent interview:
“There are a lot of people who have been incredibly successful by the typical person’s definition, financially or in terms of career acceleration, but have done it destructively, by not lifting others up and bringing them along. Then there are those who have been productive achievers, who have also brought others along with them and made a difference.”
For Cole, her giving attitude implied raising others and bringing them along in her path towards growth. A deep sense of purpose, rooted on an abundance mentality, had a significant impact on her professional success.
Giving And Happiness: My Experience
As a father, I pay close attention to the way my two children interact between them, and how they do so with others. I am curious about the motivations behind their daily choices. About their why.
My son’s instinctive reaction in the park reminded me of my shift towards a more giving stance. Over the past two years, I have discovered that my sense of purpose is increasingly linked to people, and less with money and the definition of “success” by current social standards.
Two factors contributed to shaping this:
- The Impact Investing activity that my fim leads in East and Southern Africa.
- My interest in the development of human potential and well-being, and my personal ambition to help people become better versions of themselves.
The two ways above are two expressions of the same mindset. Believing in abundance — without giving ourselves mindlessly nor denying our ambitions in the process — can lead us on a path towards personal well-being and success in life.
Happiness has to be earned. It cannot be chased. It cannot be manufactured. Happiness is about the consistency of our daily actions with our principles. The way we respond to the daily demands of life. In that context, a virtuous circle of gratitude and giving — as proven by positive psychology, the science of happiness — becomes a critical element of a fulfilling life.
To summarize, life is not a zero-sum game. An abundance mindset is both possible and practical. Science has shown our brains are wired to give because they prolong positive emotions from such interactions. Positive Psychology confirms this and gives us a model we can use to become productive achievers: PERMA.
And how did that day in the park with my three-year-old son end? Ah, yes! Well, at some point we decided to leave. It was already lunch time. As we were leaving the park, the other kid my run out towards us and stopped my son. He then asked:
“What is your name? Will you be coming back tomorrow?”
I guess on that day, giving created a new friendship.