Researchers have discovered what compels us to give. Yet what they found validates what was revealed thousands of years ago.
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It perplexed Charles Darwin. Why do we give? If humans supposedly descended from animals, what compels us to act with concern for others? A Wall Street Journal article titled “Hard-wired for Giving” stated, “The question of why any creatures are altruistic at all obsessed Charles Darwin from the time he devised his theory of evolution…”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines altruism as “feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness.” When people give with no direct personal benefit it runs contrary to evolutionists’ survival-of-the-fittest theory.
“The Darwinian principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ echoes what many people believe about life: To get ahead, you need to look out for No. 1. A cursory read of evolutionary doctrine suggests that the selfish individuals able to outcompete others for the best mates and the most resources are most likely to pass their genes on to the next generation…” (The Wall Street Journal).
Over 150 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, scientists now understand more about why we act unselfishly. New brain-scanning technology reveals that human beings are actually designed to enjoy helping others.
Giving is in our DNA.
The Wall Street Journal article referenced above was excerpted from author Elizabeth Svoboda’s book What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness. The article opens with, “Contrary to conventional wisdom that humans are essentially selfish, scientists are finding that the brain is built for generosity…New research shows that not only do humans have a generosity gene, but there’s a biological basis for why giving feels good…”
“Using tools like fMRI [which reveals blood flow in the brain], scientists are identifying the precise circuits within the brain that control these nurturing social impulses. Where once there was only speculation about the origins of the human desire to help others, a body of data is starting to fill the gap, revealing key workings of the biological hardware that makes altruism possible. This represents a new scientific frontier…”
The article quoted Jordan Grafman, the director of brain injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who began studying the characteristics of empathy and generosity in the mid-2000s. He stated that new technology made it “much easier to see which parts of the brain were engaged as people carried out various tasks.”
Dr. Grafman’s study involved 19 subjects positioned inside a brain scanner. Each individual was shown an extensive list of charities. “For each charity, they could choose to donate money, refuse to donate money, or add money to a separate reward account that they could take home at the end of the study. (In some cases, it was especially costly for subjects to make a donation decision, because doing so required them to draw from their own reward accounts)” (ibid.).
While studying the lab results, Dr. Grafman’s colleague, Jorge Moll, approached him saying, “You’re not going to believe this” (ibid.).
The study found that different areas of the brain light up when people give, including a release of the pleasure chemical dopamine.
The first discovery revealed unusually high midbrain activity. Our brains actually create a pleasurable response when we give: “The scans revealed that when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex, and the same region that became active when the subjects added money to their personal reward accounts” (ibid., emphasis added).
A second area of the brain—the subgenual area, part of the frontal lobes—also saw a rise in activity when those being tested gave to a charity: “The area contains lots of receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected…” (ibid.).
A third area of the brain called the anterior prefrontal cortex was also activated in this scenario. This part of the brain controls our ability to make complex judgments and decisions.
Surprisingly, the subjects gave to charities when it came from their personal reward accounts: “These subjects were willing to give even when they knew it would cost them, indicating that this segment of the brain may help us decide to behave generously when doing so runs counter to our immediate self-interest” (ibid.).
Another researcher found a fourth area of the brain—called the nucleus accumbens—lit up when subjects gave. University of Oregon economist Bill Harbaugh conducted a study tracking people’s donations to a food bank from a $100 account they were given. His findings matched Dr. Grafman’s study: “When subjects decided to give to charity, areas of the brain associated with the processing of unexpected rewards, such as the nucleus accumbens, lit up. The nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, ‘is almost like the common currency of the brain. It keeps track of rewards, whatever kind they are,’ Dr. Harbaugh says. ‘There’s some primary reward people get from seeing money go from themselves to provide to other people’” (ibid.).
Sure, the pleasure chemical dopamine is released when we eat a chocolate bar, drink an alcoholic beverage or win a prize. But writing a check to charity?
“Dr. Harbaugh’s study indicated that giving to charity is, surprisingly, neurologically similar to ingesting an addictive drug or learning you’ve received a winning lottery ticket. It seems clear, then, that people give to charity not only because they think it’s a good thing to do but also because giving makes them feel good, in addition to the particular benefit they’re bestowing on the recipient…” (ibid.).
“While we are hard-wired to ‘do unto others’ in a multitude of ways, we also have power over whether to take advantage of those natural capacities or let them wither away. One way to strengthen these capacities may involve giving in strategic ways to reinforce the existing generosity pathways in our brains…Ultimately, we might not only be able to get hooked on self-sacrifice, but also be able to learn to love the entire process” (ibid.).
The facts are incontrovertible: giving makes us happier!
Research has shown that giving money is not the only thing that brings psychological rewards. Giving time or support to others also brings happiness. The journal Psychological Science reported on a study about this topic in an article titled, “Providing Social Support May Be More Beneficial Than Receiving It” (emphasis added throughout): “Results…indicated that mortality was significantly reduced for individuals who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives, and neighbors, and individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse. Receiving support had no effect on mortality once giving support was taken into consideration. This pattern of findings was obtained after controlling for demographic, personality, health, mental health, and marital-relationship variables. These results have implications for understanding how social contact influences health and longevity.”
Psychological Science cited a number of studies that show that helping others provides physical benefits such as reducing stress and improving health.
But positive effects did not stop there: “Moreover, volunteering has beneficial effects for volunteers, including improved physical and mental health (Omoto & Synder, 1995; Wilson & Musick, 1999). Even perceptions that are likely to be associated with giving, such as a sense of meaning, purpose, belonging, and mattering, have been shown to increase happiness and decrease depression (e.g., Taylor & Turner, 2000; see Batson, 1998, for a review).”
The study concluded: “Giving support may be an important component of interpersonal relationships that has considerable value to health and well-being…If giving, rather than receiving, promotes longevity, then interventions that are currently designed to help people feel supported may need to be redesigned so that the emphasis is on what people do to help others…”
In a 2004 study titled “Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?”, researchers from the University of Zurich found: “Volunteering constitutes one of the most important pro-social activities…helping others is the way to higher individual well-being…We find robust evidence that volunteers are more satisfied with their life than non-volunteers.”
All of this research appears revolutionary. But the hard scientific evidence is simply a validation of a principle that was revealed thousands of years ago.
What today’s researchers are discovering can be summarized in the phrase “the give way of life”—expressed through outgoing concern for others. In contrast, the “get way of life” is ruled by selfishness and greed. These two opposing ways of life have existed since Adam and Eve.
Mankind has generally followed the “get” way of life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve chose to take to themselves knowledge when they ate of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This led to a self-centered way of life that produced a vicious cycle of violence, covetousness, misery and greed.
But God always intended His Creation to experience lives of peace, abundance and happiness.
Throughout the Bible—which can be likened to mankind’s Instruction Manual on how to live—one finds evidence of how giving makes us happier—much more than what scientists and authors have discovered.
The knowledge found in this Book has been generally disregarded, yet the brain research now proves what the Bible has maintained for millennia.
Consider. Over 2,000 years before scientists discovered that giving brings joy, Jesus Christ confirmed this in the Bible when He stated, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The Greek word for “blessed” can also be translated “happy.”
This verse fits perfectly with what scientists have discovered about our brains! We are happier when we give than when we receive.
Jesus Christ created our minds, with God the Father guiding the process. They understand that giving was designed to be an inherent part of our lives.
Most would be surprised by how much the Bible contains about the give way of life. One of the clearest statements Jesus made about giving comes from Luke 6: “Give to every man that asks of you…as you would [wish] that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise…do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great… (vs. 30-31, 35). This is the famous “Golden Rule”—treat others the way you would like to be treated. Jesus said that when we do this, our “reward shall be great.”
Verse 38 adds more corroboration about what happens when we give: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
When we give in this manner, much more than what we initially gave comes back to us. We reap abundant rewards. This principle is also described in Ecclesiastes, where King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote, “Cast your bread upon the waters [give to others]: for you shall find it after many days” (11:1).
Sooner or later, giving pays off.
Proverbs 11 states: “There is that scatters [gives], and yet increases; and there is that withholds more than is meet [gets for himself], but it tends to poverty. The liberal [generous] soul shall be made fat: and he that waters shall be watered also himself” (vs. 24-25).
Those who give to others actually receive more in the end! No wonder humans were designed to give—it feels good to help others. In doing this, the Bible and science make clear that we also reap rewards for ourselves. As the saying goes, it is a “win-win” situation.
When Jesus conducted the first New Testament Passover service, which involved a foot-washing ceremony, He stated: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you…If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:14-15, 17).
By focusing on the needs of others, Jesus set the example for His disciples. He stated that serving others (in this case, through washing their feet) would lead to being “happy.”
Two verses from the Proverbs expand this topic: “He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he gives of his bread to the poor” (22:9), and, “He covets greedily all the day long: but the righteous gives and spares not” (21:26).
Notice another passage from II Corinthians 9. It shows that if one gives (“sows”) a little, he will receive little. If one gives much (“bountifully”), he will receive much: “He which sows sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (vs. 6-8).
During His ministry, Christ told His disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). And in verse 39, Christ instructs this: “He that finds [the Greek can also mean “gets”] his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life [gives it up] for My sake shall find it.”
If a person selflessly gives up his or her life in the service of others, they will actually gain much more in the end. In contrast, those who hold on to their lives—out of selfishness—will ultimately lose what they tried to keep.
Giving leads to happiness. The Bible shows that simply having money does not. Many scriptures reveal that living the get way of life, accumulating riches and assets, only leads to sorrow.
Notice just two examples of wealth bringing unhappiness. The first is a warning from I Timothy: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is [a] root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (6:9-10).
God’s Word brings a message of tremendous good news including the benefits of giving— and these are validated by science.
Some claim they cannot afford to give. But research shows we cannot afford not to give! (To learn more about the way of life outlined through the pages of your Bible, request our free booklet The Laws to Success.)
Become addicted to giving to others. Focus on ways you can help—whether financially or through other means of support. Seek out friends and family members and see where you can build up relationships by focusing on their needs.
Strive to live the give way of life and follow Jesus’ teaching that it is more blessed to give than to receive. You will love the results!