Science Says Giving Is *The* Key To Happiness. How To Practice The Art Of Joyful Giving

January 11, 2019

It has been well-documented that our state of happiness after we experience a particular event or are on the receiving end of a gift exchange is short-lived. This is referred to as hedonic adaptation. But giving? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. A new study indicates that the joy derived from giving to others is perhaps the greatest happiness trigger and reason why I’m going to make it a priority for life in 2019.

When it comes to the eternal quest for happiness, many of us are willing to devour any book, blog or podcast promising to deliver the magic formula. Eating well, getting plenty of exercise and a good night’s rest are all common themes and quite rightly deserving of the numerous mentions, but what about the specifics of the here and now? After all, life is just the present moment, as it happens, isn’t it? The past lingers in our brain sometimes causing anguish and the many hypothetical futures fill us with dread. How can we better utilize those fleeting moments throughout our days to bring us more joy and fulfillment?

Life is all about relationships; about the connections we make with others as we go about our days. I’m not just referring to the romantic stuff, though that too is, of course, incredibly important. The exchange of ideas and compassion that our friends and family offer us, as well as the space they allow us to unabashedly be our real selves, expressing our thoughts, ideas and emotions as we genuinely feel them are all invaluable contributing factors to a jolly existence.

If you pay close attention, you’ll likely know that one of the ways of bringing the most joy into your life is through the act of giving. Whether it’s giving to those less fortunate that puts your life into perspective, or a special gift to a loved one you know will appreciate it more than words can express, the act of giving outweighs the act of receiving by perhaps a billion to one. Having the wherewithal to give your time,money or a priceless find and choosing to do so contributes more to your life satisfaction than is easily quantifiable, though psychologists certainly try to measure it.

In the aforementioned study, subjects were given $5 every day for 5 days. They were instructed to spend that $5 on the exact same thing each day of the trial. Some were told to spend the money on themselves, others on someone else. Examples of the latter were: placing the $5 in a tip jar at the same café every day, or making a daily online donation to the same charity.

After the 5 days of spending, participants were asked about their experiences. The results were striking: those instructed to spend on themselves reported a decline in their happiness over the 5 days, whereas those who spent on others maintained consistent levels of happiness over the course of the week.

A second study utilized an online puzzle game that rewarded players with $0.05 for each round won. Again, participants were instructed to either give the money to charity, or keep for themselves. The same results were noted: those who gave were consistently happier than those who kept the winnings.

The psychologists explained that hedonic adaptation is beneficial, because it forces us to constantly strive for new things. But there’s a clear difference between acquiring financial gain compared to experiences. A paycheck can always be compared to another paycheck; particularly that of peers who might be earning substantially more. The result? A dullness cast upon our gain as never being quite enough. This is part of the problem with advertising and the resulting vicious cycle of consumerism: there is always another pair of shoes to own or lipstick to add to our collection; another gadget to increase our productivity or piece of furniture to make our lives complete.

The act of giving is different; the brain considers each “gift” as unique, therefore withholding from comparison to anything else that has gone before. Giving is also thought to bring us sustained satisfaction because it maintains our social interactions, promoting a greater sense of connection and belonging. With loneliness the greatest villain, giving to others and reveling in the joy of doing so keeps the demons at bay and our feelings of social inclusion alight.

Over the holidays, my family and I were discussing an interesting pattern that we had noticed at local grocery stores scattered throughout the area. In the wealthiest suburbs, the food donation bins were relatively bare. Across town in some of the most impoverished neighbourhoods, however, they were overflowing. Those who had little were giving the most. Those who could comfortably afford to give more simply weren’t doing so.

It seems peculiar and really quite sad at first glance, but it makes complete sense when you think about it a little longer. Those who live very close to the breadline face the very real possibility that they might, at some point, have to depend on those donations from others. The importance of keeping the bins full is a tangible reality, so they give as much as they can afford to do so. Those earning much more—for whom food banks never register as a possibility—might never even consider giving. This isn’t out of spite, it’s just simply not in their field of thought.

When money is tight, we often turn to our communities for support. We give without expecting anything in return, because we hope that if we are ever in need, we can depend on the kindness of others to provide us with what we need. For much of the developed world, that sense of community has disintegrated over time and it’s not until we face the kind of adversity we see during natural disasters that many of us realise the importance of it.

This year, I challenge you to give because you can. What might feel like the smallest action that causes you not an ounce of inconvenience may be a life-changer for another. Give your ear to someone who needs to talk about something that’s troubling them, give your time to an elderly person who doesn’t get out much, give your home-cooked delights to a busy mom who can’t find the time to cool. You simply don’t know how far the ripples will stretch, so dive in.

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Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash
Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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