Somewhere, somehow, we’ve lost the ability to give without expecting something in return.
All too many times, I feel like we give gifts or display generosity because we expect we will get the same thing in return. It doesn’t matter if it’s a birthday card, our time, or even something as simple as a smile. Somewhere, somehow, we’ve lost the ability to give without expecting something in return. What if we gave just because it feels good? How could it help us live happier lives?
The science tells us we will absolutely be happier when we are generous to others, even if it’s the smallest act of generosity. Furthermore, we will be setting ourselves up for long-term happiness. According to recent studies, even verbally committing to being more generous has an impact on our neuronal pathways (The article can he found here and the study here).
Essentially, they had two groups, the control was told to spend a certain amount of money on themselves, while the experiment group was told to spend money on others. Both groups were given a happiness questionnaire before and after the experiment. They also were asked to make decisions on how to spend their money while inside an fMRI machine, so they could measure changes in the brain activity. They were given differing options on how to spend their money. When being generous to others, there were differing benefits and costs related to the act.
The participant would be able to give their money to another but the decision would also cost them a varying amount of the total they were given. I don’t think we really consider this part of the equation whenever we are doing something for another person. There is always some sort of cost to ourselves associated with it, even if it’s not a monetary cost. The experiment found that as the cost began to outweigh the benefit to the recipient, the participant would be less likely to agree to the gift.
I think this is a huge part of the process that everyone should understand. There has to be a limit to our generosity. It’s our natural instinct for survival and we must have awareness as to when we are over-extending ourselves.
The results of the experiment further strengthened the results of previous experiments. They found that the more people showed generosity to others, the more likely they were to be generous later and the more overall happiness they reported. Generosity isn’t just a way for us to find more happiness, it’s infectious. We receive neuronal rewards that make us want to do it again. The scientists also found that the amount of generosity didn’t matter. Even when it was the smallest act of kindness, they saw similar results. They even saw an increase in happiness from simply promising to be generous indicated by an increase in brain activity in the areas dedicated to happiness and compassion.
Armed with this knowledge, I think we should challenge ourselves to look for ways to be more generous. We don’t need to get something in return, because our brain is already equipped to reward us with more happiness. I can understand how some will see this as still being selfish, but I don’t see it that way. I think this is simply a positive reaction our brain has created because generosity reconnects us with others. If we spend a little more time thinking about others and less about ourselves, we access our most basic need for social engagement. Find a local charity to donate to, cook a meal for someone in need, smile at someone, or simply listen when they need someone to talk to. Don’t worry if you’re going to get something physical in return, because the ultimate reward is life-long happiness. It’s an infection worth spreading.
A version of this post was previously published on gofindyourhappy.net and is republished here with permission from the author.
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