Charity and the Human Brain: Happy Holidays!

The holidays are definitely all about giving. Every year in the United States, people give billions of dollars to their favorite charitable causes. The bulk of this giving is done around the New Year and the holidays. We give money, we volunteer. Our service often helps complete strangers. Why do we do it?

Certainly charity is at the heart of all world religions. Here are just a few examples:

  • From Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”
  • From the Quran: “And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah: for Allah sees Well all that ye do.”
  • From The Buddha: “If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”
  • From the Talmud: “Tzedakah (charity) is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

But religion is not the only reason we are charitable. Agnostics give. Atheists give. Why? A series of recent neuroscience studies suggest that generosity and selflessness are actually part of human nature.

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested time out of mind that altruism is simple the suppression of innate selfish nature – we temporarily forgo selfishness in order to achieve some future gain. Charles Darwin considered generosity to be a threat to natural selection. But giving to others is associated with our understanding of them. The more we empathize, the more we give.”Findings suggest how our ability to share in another’s feelings—what some researchers call “affective empathy”—is a key to altruistic behavior. If we experience a sense of happiness when we see others receive a reward, we’ll assign greater value to giving rewards to others—perhaps nearly as much value as we would give to rewards for ourselves.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_our_brains_make_us_generous)

It is also related to oxytocin, the hormone that promotes social bonding. “Oxytocin connects us to others and social connections are a powerful way to increase one’s own happiness.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moral-molecule/200911/the-science-generosity)

Giving feels good! “Kindness and nice behaviors might be like psychological chocolate…People might actually enjoy doing kind things for others, and that might be an emotional engine for driving pro-social behaviors.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_our_brains_make_us_generous) And who doesn’t love chocolate?!

Celebrate the season by giving. Give money to your favorite charity, and give your time. It feels amazing. “I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.” (Kahlil Gibran)

Happy Holidays and a Joyous New Year!