Philanthropy Friday: Why Giving Feels Good (part one)

Each Friday, the another jennifer blog shares stories of those who incorporate philanthropy into their everyday lives – personally and professionally – in a creative and unique way. If you have a story you’d like to share, please contact Jennifer. You can view past posts from the series here.

Note from Jennifer: The following article is part one of two on the subject of why giving feels good by Greg Evans, PhD. I was connected to Greg through The Smile Epidemic and am elated that he wrote this article for another jennifer. Because of the length, I decided to divide his post into two. Greg is a positive psychologist and happiness expert. How cool is that? I think you will find his insights and research fascinating. You can read the second article here.

Canada Geese V Formation

Selfish behavior by its very definition is aimed at bringing ourselves more happiness, yet study after study finds that unselfish more so than selfish people report feeling happy and satisfied with life.

The scientifically demonstrated benefit of a kind disposition is uplifting news. Also, knowing that he is probably miserable makes me feel better about my neighbour who still has not returned my leaf blower.

The no doubt annoying, but none the less effective, analogy used by the self-care movement is we should “place the oxygen mask on ourselves first before we can put it on others.”

There is undoubtedly some truth to this; often we need to be happy before we can be help someone else to be happy. The sociologist Nicholas Christakis from Harvard University has shown that happiness is in fact a social contagion. Happy people have measurable benefits on the well-being of their friends and even strangers within their social networks. As it turns out, happiness is not so different from the flu.

This common sense “oxygen mask” advice might be hiding a larger truth. Research conducted by Diana M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister demonstrated that one of the best known mood enhancers  was not focusing on ourselves, rather it was doing something kind for someone else—even when we are not feeling our best. Perhaps especially when we are not feeling our best? In other words, putting the preverbal mask on someone else first may ironically be the most effective way for us to breathe.

The paradox is that being selfish in the traditional sense of the word (self-absorbed), is not being selfish in terms of obtaining the most happiness. Based on the collective scientific findings, one might convince even the most self-centred person to help others on the basis that it is what is best for their own happiness. I am hoping my neighbor is reading this.

But why does giving make us feel good?

Jonathon Haidt from the New York University Stern School of Business points to an evolutionary reason. “If we’re happier in a situation,” Haidt writes, “we’re motivated to repeat it…the brains reward system has an evolutionary purpose, it encourages us to cooperate with one another.”

A common misinterpretation of Darwin’s survival of the fit is that all creatures big and small are meant only to compete with one another. But there are many examples in nature of the benefits of giving. Often the best way to look out for ourselves is by giving to others—it’s not exactly pure altruism, but a sort of enlightened selfishness.

Canadian geese fly south in the form of a V shape, with each of the strongest flyers taking turns at the front where there is the most air resistance. More remarkably, if any bird drops behind the group, two other birds typically do so as well, encouraging the fallen bird to rejoin the group at what seems to be great risk to their own personal survival. The chance of individual survival actually increases when taking into account that the other birds would also be willing to help if they were to fall behind.

Vampire bats, Haidt points out, would share on a successful night of blood sucking with generically unrelated peers. This might also seem to go against the idea of Darwinian competition, except that the bats remember who shared with them, and they in turned shared with these bats.

In the most amusing study, researchers sent out Christmas cards to random strangers and to their surprise the majority of people sent Christmas cards in return. It appears humans have an internally motivated need to return a favor, even to a stranger. This reminds me, I have 35 years of Christmas cards to respond to.

But hold on a minute, so does this mean that we just give everything away and we get more in return?

As you might guess the creation of a hyper-social world is more complicated than simply being kind to everyone and handing over all our time and belongings.

Tune in next week for part two of this post!

GregEvansGreg Evans earned a PhD researching the area of Positive Psychology from the University of Queensland, and is a current board member in charge of strategic partnerships for The Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Greg is the Director of The Happiness Enhancement Group (HEG) which attempts to promote and increase happiness and human flourishing in individuals, couples, families, organizations, schools, and communities through the applied use of Positive Psychology.  Read more about Greg

photo by: bobosh_t
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  1. says

    I LOVE THIS POST!!!! I love the message and the insight and the humor- all wrapped in one! It is amazing how giving, and serving and having that “others” focus truly leads us to a deeper joy. Often, I find that my “down times” are centered in self pity- and as soon as I step outside myself to help another… my world doesn’t seem as bad. It is a beautiful biblical lesson- giving of yourself is fulfilling… in every way. :)

    I am SO glad you introduced us to Greg Evans, Jennifer! Can’t wait for part 2!
    Chris Carter recently posted..It’s A GIVEAWAY! A Really Good One…My Profile

  2. says

    This is such a great discussion and I can’t wait for it to be continued. I know for me, I need to put that oxygen mask on first for me to be useful to anyone, yet once it’s on, I am pretty much able to give as much as needed to those around me and enjoy doing so. Can’t wait for part 2!
    Ilene recently posted..The Misconception About PhilanthropyMy Profile

    • says

      The whole oxygen mask discussion has me thinking about my own experiences. I need to pay attention to when giving makes me feel the best (i.e, when I’m in a good or bad mood). I’m not sure I’ve paid attention to that!

  3. says

    This is really good! I can’t wait for part two! I loved the comment about his neighbor – and the fact about geese is interesting! And what about that little birdie who eats the food from an alligator’s mouth and in return, the alligator does not eat it? (I am so scientifically savvy!)

    Love this Jennifer!
    Alexa recently posted..Happiness Comes from Purpose and MeaningMy Profile

  4. says

    I noticed when most people think of Psychology they think of crazy people, psychopaths/criminals, and psychotherapy/counseling. Greg is a new breed of psychologists that focuses research on what makes people feel satisfied with their personal and professional lives. I can’t wait for more research to develop from people like Greg!
    Michael recently posted..Why We Are All Predictably Irrational With MoneyMy Profile

    • says

      Exactly! I’ve worked in social services for some time here in Maine (in communications), so I know a lot of social workers and psychologists. It’s amazing how negative the whole concept of counseling is. Our wellbeing is so much more than crazy vs. not crazy. Are you familiar with Hannah Curtis’s blog, New Approaches ( She was in the Skillshare class. Her goal is to re-define how we think about therapy.


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