The Science of Giving Thanks

A Proven Win-Win

The THX Co.
Nov 28, 2014 · 4 min read

By: Kristin A. R. Osborn & Dr. Maneet Bhatia, Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School) — Contributing Editors to The THX Co. Journal

Are people inherently self-interested or altruistic?

The answer based on scientific research is, we are both.

Humans want to grow, excel, succeed and survive. This means in many cases, we need to be competitive, and battle over limited resources and opportunities. However, what research continues to demonstrate is, despite these natural tendencies, humans are driven towards being altruistic and giving.

Neuroscientist, Dr. Jordan Grafman, has investigated the origins of empathy and generosity in the human brain by conducting fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of subjects’ brains while they had an option to donate or not donate to charity. fMRI scans measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. When we carry out certain tasks, different areas of the brain become active and engaged.

What did he find?

In the field of psychology, we refer to one’s ability to give and receive as ‘Receptive Capacity.’ Receptive Capacity measures a person’s ability to provide and receive caring from others, to experience both positive and negative emotions in a healthy manner, to feel empathy and perceive others with accuracy and compassion while also seeing oneself as worthy of care.

It is this Receptive Capacity that mental health professionals’ work to instill and cultivate in their patients. Research shows that when patients are able to build this capacity, it strengthens their compassion for themselves and others, reduces maladaptive and negative emotional reactions, and increases adaptive and healthy expression of emotions and their overall emotional well-being.

Ultimately, people are able to live more authentic, genuine, and purposeful lives (e.g., Bhatia, et al, 2009; McCullough et al, 2003).

In all industries, be it health, corporate, or education, management leaders are implementing research from organizational psychology that identifies “giving” as an important and rewarding component in developing group cohesion and productivity. Whether giving your time to help a student learn new concepts and skills, or sharing ‘war stories’ of building your own company with aspiring entrepreneurs, it is in these moments of giving where we reap lasting benefits.

Our ability to inspire and support others to grow, learn and succeed provides an ongoing sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Through these experiences of giving we also foster new relationships, which open exciting possibilities and ventures. Another finding in Dr. Grafman’s investigation of empathy and generosity was that when individuals donated to charity, it activated a part of their frontal lobe that produces oxytocin, which is a hormone that promotes social bonding.

As such, this finding indicates that when we act selflessly, we are able to help others, feel good, and strengthen our interpersonal relationships.

Highly acclaimed Professor Adam Grant, of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, whose research examines the benefits of giving, wrote a book called Give and Take. His message in this book is that when individuals focus on the impact of their work on other people’s lives, committing themselves to the service of others, they receive many rewards and benefits — such as an increase in motivation and creativity.

As well, contrary to conventional wisdom that has suggested the more time we spend helping others the less productive we are, research indicates the opposite is true: helping others increases our productivity.

We know that giving is good for our health, our income and our relationships.

So often we hear the common phrase “the more you give, the more you receive.” The research in numerous domains suggests this is, indeed, true.

Therefore, as mental health professionals, we can work with our clients to increase their capacity to be generous and giving. As managers and team leaders, we can work towards providing support and meaningfulness in the lives of our employees and staff. As educators and parents, we can spend more time teaching and helping our children learn. As business owners, we can work to create meaningful opportunities for others, and invest time in purposeful and progressive causes, providing assistance and guidance to groups that need it most.

And as global citizens, we can purpose daily to live our lives more compassionately and graciously, living to serve each other on this journey.

So when you sit down for your Thanksgiving dinner, spend some time looking into the eyes of your friends and family and be mindful of the gift of giving and the power and potential that the capacity to give provides in all your relationships and initiatives.

We promise, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And that folks, is what we call a win-win.

Originally published for The THX Co.

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