You know that feeling you get when you help out an elderly neighbor with shoveling their driveway after a storm? Or what about helping that mom at the grocery store with her hands full, getting her cart to her car? How about the time you donated your hard-earned money to a cause you fully support and care about? The power of giving back to the community doesn’t just benefit those individuals or groups you’ve graciously helped with your time or money.  In fact, the psychological events that take place when giving have some very impressive results for your own personal mental health. 

Every time we do something that brings us joy, our feelings of happiness and excitement diminish a little every time we repeat that event. For example, when you meet someone you’re attracted to, you feel an emotional connection; butterflies in your tummy, and a sense of bliss? Those start to ease as your budding new relationship advances. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation. It’s our brain’s response to adapting to unique events throughout our lives. When you get a big raise at work, you’re excited and newly exhilarated, but after a few months, you’ll have returned to a normalized state where that extra income doesn’t excite you anymore. Now you’re accustomed to that extra bit of money, and your spending habits adjust, bringing you back to a normal, more regulated mood. 

How Does Hedonic Adaptation Affect the Pursuit of Happiness? – with Joe Gladstone from the Royal Institution

The psychology behind giving, however, means your brain processes those good feelings in a completely different way. That’s right, when you give your time or money in a selfless act of giving, that feeling may not diminish at all, and in most cases, it diminishes at a much slower rate. 

The Power of Giving – How Charity Makes us Feel

In 2 studies from 2018, researchers evaluated the psychological responses of individuals who gave similar or equal gifts to someone else, versus receiving those same gifts themselves over the course of a set time period. The results observed that giving to an individual or charity elicited a longer, more resonating feeling of happiness than receiving the same or similar gift themselves. 

In many cases, when we are experiencing feelings of unhappiness or despair, we commonly hear advice like “You need a change!”, or “Time to try something new!”. We think our brains rely on change and new experiences as we seek out endorphin-releasing events or physical possessions that can help elevate our moods. But the power of giving might be a great way to wade through a sea of uncertainty, and find ways to help us feel better, more confident, and more valued. 

The unfortunate stigma to that good feeling you get when you give is an entirely different psychological phenomenon. Accusations that you’re only giving to make yourself look or feel better can leave people feeling like they’re giving for all the wrong reasons; but researchers have expressed that without outside influence, participants almost always chose to give earnings or “gifts” to a charity, anyway. With the veil of anonymity at their fingertips, the feelings of joy they felt by being charitable compelled them to give regardless. 

Are We Hardwired to Take Care of Others?

In a study from the early 2000s, researchers examined the brain activity of participants who were asked to give donations to a charity. Using an fMRI scan, they observed  as they asked participants about their charitable activities and ideologies, as well as their overall feelings on altruism and caring for others. They found that acts of charity increased activity in the portion of the brain known as the anterior prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with self-initiated behaviors, planning, and social cognition. This part of the brain is also associated with the pleasure centers, which encourage us to seek out mood-lifting behaviors and pleasurable activities. 

What may be even more interesting in this study is that those who had a more charitable outlook and those who donated most had more activity in this part of the brain. It was observed that those who placed the interests of others before their own felt more pleasure and felt happier longer than those who chose a less charitable option.

the power of giving back

Theories about the human race being hardwired to care for others stems from our biological and physical limitations in our roles as parents and caregivers. Human infants require years of care and nurturing to ensure survival. Researchers have associated the need for caregiving to be pleasurable and aligned with our ultimate survival as a species, and ultimately to our need to care for our offspring for a much longer time than most other species on the planet. Essentially, this means that in order for humans to successfully raise our children to an age where they can care for themselves, we need to feel joy when rearing them. 

No Act Too Big or Small – What Defines Giving Back?

The beauty behind the power of giving is pretty simple. In the studies mentioned above, participants were making small charitable donations, sometimes less than $5 dollars a day. In these circumstances, the donation didn’t come from their own personal bank account. The parameters of these studies, however, did give them the option to keep some of the money they could otherwise give away; this gave them the opportunity to give to charity over their own personal gain. 

The psychology behind charitable giving from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

In taking a look at the overall psychology behind the power of giving back, you might be wondering if it matters how you donate or how much you can give. The overwhelming majority of the above studies’ responses presented us with a pretty clear picture; no amount of your valuable time, and no dollar amount of your donation is too big, or too small. Donating the amount of money or time you have available to you can create these same feelings of happiness. 

Choosing a cause or community to help out with your charitable action means great things for a great cause and can help your feelings of self-worth and value lift you to a greater feeling of confidence and happiness, and that’s a win-win for everyone involved!

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