Expert Voices

The Science Behind the Power of Giving (Op-Ed)

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Jenny Santi is a philanthropy advisor to some of the world's most generous philanthropists and celebrity activists, and was the head of philanthropy services (Southeast Asia) for the world's largest wealth manager. A Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy, Santi is a frequent commentator on the topic and has been quoted in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, on Channel NewsAsia, and on BBC World News. This essay builds on themes from her book "The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Transformative Power of Giving" (Penguin, 2015). The author contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The morning of Dec. 26, 2004, Czech model Petra Nemcova, then age 25, and her fiancé, photographer Simon Atlee, 33, were vacationing in the resort town of Khao Lak, Thailand. They had met two years earlier on a photo shoot, and were living out a fairy tale long-distance romance. Nemcova lived in New York, while Atlee lived in London, and they were always traveling around the world, wherever their jobs took them. Nemcova planned the vacation in Thailand as a special surprise for Atlee, who had never been there. They had spent the first few days on a scuba-diving cruise, sleeping under the stars. 

"It was just so, so beautiful. It's just strange how, in the split of a second, everything can change so much," said Petra. 

That morning, one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history took place, triggering a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Nemcova and Atlee were in their bungalow when the first wave hit. 

"I heard people screaming, and people running away. Everyone was so frantic," she said. Then, the water flooded their bungalow and pulled them outside in seconds. "Simon was screaming, 'Petra, Petra, what's going on?'" All the windows in the bungalow broke, and Nemcova was swept into a current of debris, breaking her pelvis and disabling her legs. She didn't know that after that moment, she would never see the love of her life again. "He again screamed, 'Petra, Petra.' It was the last time I saw him." The tsunami left a trail of destruction in 14 countries and killed more than 230,000 people — including Simon.

The next day Nemcova was transferred by helicopter to a hospital. Her pelvis was so badly fractured near her spine that doctors said it was a miracle she wasn't paralyzed; she had also lost half her blood from internal injuries that included a hematoma on her kidney. She spent the next few weeks recovering in a hospital in Thailand, and in her parents' home in the Czech Republic. But barely a year later, still recovering from her physical and emotional wounds, she returned to Thailand to see how she could help rebuild the lives of the children whose lives were impacted by the natural disaster, knowing that after the emergency response had been completed, they were soon to be forgotten. 

The act of giving

We learn early on that it is better to give than to receive. We are taught to give and it feels good to help someone in need. But is there a deeper current to giving? What drives people such as Petra Nemcova to go back to the scene of devastation and help others (and eventually set up a foundation to help disaster victims) when it would have been far easier to stay in the comfort of her home and never return to Thailand? While it is gratifying to know that someone is benefiting from our help, there are times when we can't help asking ourselves, Why am I doing this?

"For it is in giving that we receive."  ~Saint Francis of Assisi

"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity."  ~Leo Tolstoy

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."  ~Winston Churchill 

"If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody."  ~Chinese proverb

But while philosophers and saints wax poetic, is there any science and hard data that back up the idea that giving is good for the giver? The resounding answer is yes. 

Today, scientific research provides compelling data to support the notion that giving one's time, talents and treasures is a powerful pathway to finding purpose, transcending difficulties, and finding fulfillment and meaning in life. 

Survival of the kindest 

At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are hardwired to be selfish. There is a growing body of evidence that shows we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive. 

"Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others," said Dacher Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. "Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate." 

Does this oppose Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" competition model, in which every man has to look after himself? Not so, it seems. In "The Descent of Man," Darwin talks about benevolence 99 times, concluding that love, sympathy and cooperation also exist in the natural world, like the way a pelican might provide fish for a blind pelican in its flock.

"As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said. 

Our brains are hardwired to serve

(Image credit: Penguin)

"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll wrote in an e-mail. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves. As Grafman read the email, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa — wait a minute!"

Grafman led one of two studies in the mid-2000s that examined where in the brain the impulse to give originates, thereby shedding light on why it feels so good to help others. Both studies asked people to make donations to charities and looked at the resulting brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which creates images of the brain's activity by detecting physical changes such as blood flow resulting from the activity of neurons. The researchers also tied the results of these imaging experiments to the subjects' everyday behaviors by asking them about their involvement in charitable work, or about their general capacity for altruism.

Grafman was more interested in what happened when subjects donated or opposed donation at a cost to themselves. The study involved 19 people, each of whom had the potential to walk away with a pot of $128. They also were given a separate pool of funds, which they could choose to distribute to a variety of charities linked to controversial issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, nuclear power, war and the death penalty. A computer presented each charity to the subjects in a series and gave them the option to donate, to oppose donation, or to receive a payoff, adding money to the pot. Sometimes, the decision to donate or oppose was costly, calling for subjects to take money out of the pot. They gave an average of $51 from the pot and pocketed the rest.

It turned out that a similar pattern of brain activity was seen when subjects chose either to donate or to take a payoff. In either case, an area of the brain toward the forehead, known as the anterior prefrontal cortex, lit up. When Grafman and his team asked subjects to rate their charitable involvement in everyday life, he found that those with the highest ratings also had the highest level of activity in the prefrontal cortex.

The results demonstrated that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Donating affects two brain "reward" systems working together: the midbrain VTA, which also is stimulated by food, sex, drugs and money; as well as the subgenual area, which is stimulated when humans see babies and romantic partners. ['The Giving Way to Happiness' (US, 2015): Book Excerpt ]

What is so startling about Grafman and Moll's 2006 study? In 1989, economist James Andreoni introduced the concept of "warm-glow giving," which attempts to explain why people give to charity. If our brains have evolved to maximize our own survival, why are we motivated to help others despite incurring personal costs? It's an ongoing question that baffles neuroscientists and evolutionists. 

The economist's answer is that people engage in "impure altruism:" Instead of being motivated solely by an interest in the welfare of the recipients of their largesse, "warm-glow givers" receive utility from the act of giving. "Utility" is an important concept used by economists to measure the usefulness a consumer obtains from any object or circumstance (for example, how much one enjoys a movie, or the sense of security one gets from buying a deadbolt).

The utility in the case of giving is the warm glow — the positive emotional feeling people get from helping others. Moll said that their 2006 study "strongly supports the existence of ‘warm glow' at a biological level. It helps convince people that doing good can make them feel good; altruism therefore doesn't need to be only sacrifice." 

Their experiment provided the first evidence that the "joy of giving" has a biological basis in the brain — surprisingly, one that is shared with selfish longings and rewards. Altruism, the experiment suggests, is not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges; rather, it is hard-wired in the brain and pleasurable.

Altruism: the miracle drug

The idea of altruism behaving like a miracle drug has been around for at least two decades. The euphoric feeling we experience when he help others is what researchers call the "helper's high," a term first introduced 20 years ago by volunteerism and wellness expert Allan Luks to explain the powerful physical sensation associated with helping others.

In a 1988 piece for Psychology Today, Luks looked at the physical effects of giving experienced by more than 1,700 women who volunteered regularly. The studies demonstrated that a full 50 percent of helpers reported feeling "high" when they helped others, while 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic. 

As Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson puts it, helping others is a door through which one can go to forget oneself and experience our natural hard-wired physical sensation. As the runner's high happens when a runner's endorphin levels rise, the helper's high happens when people perform good deeds for others. In other words, the helper's high is a classic example of nature's built-in reward system for those who help others.

But are there rewards, as well, when the act of helping is required and not voluntary?

A 2007 study by economists Bill Harbaugh and Daniel Burghart and psychologist Ulrich Mayr, all from the University of Oregon, explored the differences in brain activity when donations were voluntary or mandatory. They gave each subject $100 and told them that nobody would know how much of it they chose to keep or give away, not even the researchers who enlisted them in the experiment and scanned their brains. Payoffs were recorded on a portable memory drive that the subjects took to a lab assistant, who then paid the subjects in cash and mailed donations to charity without knowing who had given what.

The brain responses were measured by an fMRI as a series of transactions occurred. Sometimes the subjects had to choose whether to donate some of their cash to a local food bank. Sometimes a tax was levied that sent their money to the food bank without their approval. Sometimes they received extra money, and sometimes the food bank received money without any of it coming from them.

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Sure enough, when the typical subject chose to donate to the food bank, he was rewarded with that "warm glow." The areas of the brain that release the pleasure chemical dopamine unexpectedly lit up (the caudate, nucleus accumbens and insula) — the same areas that respond when you eat a dessert or receive money.

Surprisingly, when the subject was forced to pay a tax to the food bank, these pleasure centers were also activated — albeit not as much. Consistent with pure altruism, the experiment found that even mandatory, taxlike transfers to a charity elicit neural activity in areas linked to reward processing. Even when it was mandatory for subjects to donate, the pleasurable response persisted, though it wasn't as strong as when people got to choose whether or not to donate.

Healing the wounded healer

Whether one is fighting an addiction or dealing with a debilitating disease, people connect more with someone who has been through similar situations. In one study, people with multiple sclerosis were trained to provide support over the telephone for 15 minutes a month to a fellow person with multiple sclerosis. The helpers proved to be more self-confident, had better self-esteem, and displayed less depression. In a similar study, people with chronic pain who counseled those with similar conditions experienced a drop in their own symptoms of pain — and depression. 

In a study of alcoholics going through the Alcoholics Anonymous program, those who helped others were nearly twice as likely to stay sober a year later, and their levels of depression were lower, too. Experts call this the "wounded healer" principle. Helping has a tremendous benefit for those who need it, and for the helpers themselves.

There was no fMRI scan to prove it, but I knew when I met Petra Nemcova that she was the picture of pure happiness — skin glowing, eyes twinkling as she smiled. Barely a year after the tsunami, and still recovering from her physical and emotional wounds, she set up the Happy Hearts Fund with the vision of rebuilding schools and the lives of young victims of natural disasters, and overcoming her grief in the process. 

By giving, she said, "you can heal faster emotionally, but also physically. There's a selfish element in it, really. When we make someone happy, we become even happier. If you decide yourself that you will help in some way, you will benefit the most because it will create amazing joy. Those who are not doing anything are missing out on a very profound joy."

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.