The Neuroscience of Generosity

I’ve been thinking about acts of giving, generosity and the jewish practise (adopted by many christians) of tithing. It’s a complex category of thoughts that often strike directly at the heart of some of the motivating factors of our lives. Safety, security, honour, freedom, identity and of course fear.

Recently I heard someone say that if the bible repeats something then God is trying to make a point. While I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of that, it is certainly extraordinary that the bible has over 2000 references to resources, wealth and money in it, while ‘faith’, a fairly central tenet of our, err…faith, is only mentioned around 200 times.

While the theology of giving has been repeated and debated a million times over in almost as many types of ways, I recently heard and then read about how giving affects us in our brains.

So…to the Neuroscience of Giving

Neuroscientists documented people’s giving, and found that there was a release of the happiness chemicals of the brain including dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is an endorphin that give people a sense of euphoria, while oxytocin produces feelings of tranquility, serenity and inner peace.

This reward system which exists in the brain is the same one that creates the type of joy that comes from eating, friendship and sex. It turns out even thinking about giving begins to produce these affects.

Other research has shown that giving can lessen the risk and symptoms of depression and day-to-day stress.

So is there any reason not give?

Well the short answer is, Yes, If don’t give if you don’t feel like are two of the researchers from this study talking about it;

VEDANTAM: The interesting thing about generosity is that it’s a double-edged sword. Giving up things can be painful. But it can also make people happy. Aknin and other scientists are studying the conditions under which generosity fuels happiness. One thing they found is that being forced to be generous is not a good way to make people happy.

AKNIN: If you force people to act generously you can really undermine those emotional rewards.

I know ‘not-doing-it-because-you-don’t-feel-like-it’ is the opposite ideas that I’ve espoused before (preferring the practise to virtue process I spoke about here), but speaking purely based on the neuroscientific and therefore felt benefits of giving, if you are coerced, give because you feel guilty, giving grudgingly then it will not produce the chemicals mentioned above. So even if you believe the research behind this post and decide to give in order to get rid of stress and feel good it probably won’t work. The reason it works the way it does is because the generosity relieves an incessant focus on self.

Here is what the researcher from this post says;

When giving selflessly, “people say their friendships are deeper, they’re sleeping better and they’re able to handle life’s obstacles better,” Post says. “On a scale of 1 to 10 – and 10’s a really powerful drug like insulin in the treatment of diabetes – this stuff is probably up there around a 7 or 8. And the amazing thing is, you don’t need to go to a drugstore for it.”

So as Science Mike says, “It’s not only God who loves a cheerful giver, but your brain too”

So what does this reveal about how we were made

Giving basically is an act of good-will that connects us in a meaningful way to a person or a group. It seems that in relationships we need some kind of traffic to cross the bridges of our relationships to keep them meaningful. For example, time, communication, service, gifts, something to express our felt-importance in the connection we have made. Giving is one of the ways we can create this, giving by it’s very nature dis-empowers the giver in a physical way but empowers the less tangible aspects of that persons felt-connection to the other.

In an age where independence is rampant and a self-reliance is a highly prized virtue giving reminds us that we are inter-dependent creatures even at a purely biological level. Humans thrive in inter-dependence. When we think of our lives then, we are most fulfilling and renewing our inherent God-image when we become persons in relationship, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2 Comments on “The Neuroscience of Generosity

  1. this is a totally different way of looking at it than I would ever think of, but I LOVE that this is what we are made for, and our chemical make-up knows it!

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