Just Giving for Christmas

by Dec 23, 2012Altruism, Mental Health, Poverty1 comment

Approx. Reading Time: 5 minutes

In our increasingly high octane and money/market oriented world it is sometimes hard to really believe in old fashioned human values such as altruism. Christmas of course challenges that. There is such a gluttonous consume and spend fest, and such a lot of anxiety about getting enough, buying the right thing, and a lot of confusion between what we really want to do as opposed to what we feel we have to do, and motives can get horribly jumbled.


What is easy to forget is that giving to others is one of the joys of life, when done in a stress free and genuinely open-hearted way, with no expectation of gaining anything in return nor any worry about getting things wrong or right. Helping others, we know,  fires reward circuits in our brains [1], makes us feel good, and unleashes hormones that enhance positive feelings. On the other hand doing something for an ulterior motive, such as a financial reward or to curry favour, is simply not as intrinsically rewarding. Indeed recent studies of toddlers under two years old showed that they in fact felt happier when giving treats to others and that they were happier if the gift was costly, that is when they give up some of their own resources for another person rather than giving a treat at no cost to themselves [2].

It is interesting that with adults blood donations have been found to decrease when donors begin to be paid for them [3]. Researchers from the University of Oregon [4] have found that when we actively choose to donate money voluntarily similar reward circuits fire up in the brain as when we get a reward for ourselves, such as eating our favourite foods. Interestingly it seems that the same reward circuits often light up , but to a lesser extent, when we give money to a cause we agree with, but involuntarily, such as via a local tax which might help school-children. Furthermore when we do something which gives pleasure, such as giving money to charity, then we are more likely to want to do this again, presumably because we get to enjoy and want more of the feelings that give us that glow inside, with its accompanying positive hormonal release.

Very specific reward centres are triggered when we are involved in an altruistic cause [5]. Specifically in experimental situations the posterior superior temporal sulcus lights up when in video games the rewards for high scores is that more money goes to charity as opposed to into their own pockets. Indeed the same reward circuitry fires when we see others winning and the prizes still going to charity. This part of the brain is also vital in social relationships and forming bonds.

Researche by the Brafman brothers found that when the same game was played but this time the financial rewards were kept by the players instead of going to charity, then the nucleus accumbens was firing up. This is a very different part of the brain and its activation can lead to a feeling rather like a small dose of cocaine being released, is linked with our dopamine circuits and with potentially addictive behaviours. The nucleus accumbens is a more primitive brain area, related to having a more ‘wild’ side, such as in exuberant triumph, very different from the warm glow that altruism brings.

There is often conflict for us all between the warm glow of giving and the buzz of personal reward. Pleasure seeking can often win out, and dopamine drives us to seek (eg the latest gadget, car, handbag or kitchen) even if research suggests that the actual acquisition of such goods does not particularly bestow happiness, whereas being kind, generous and altruistic does. Interestingly international studies have found that happiness levels across countries are firmly linked with the extent to which people valued pro-social giving and helping others [6]. Helping and giving to others, such as in voluntary work or giving blood, feels good [3].

Furthermore, when we feel loved and cared for, or feel safe and generous, we have higher levels of the hormone oxytocin which makes us more generous and trusting. Indeed artificially giving people oxytocin also makes people considerably more trusting and more generous, giving more away and reaping the rewards as they received more in return.  A linked experiment[7] found that those with naturally higher oxytocin levels in their bloodstreams were more generous and also gave away more.

This might be supposed to be a time of peace and love, but is often in fact one of frenzy, anxiety and guilt, and it is easy to lose sight of the potential for genuinely good-hearted acts. This is much easier when we are feeling calm and relaxed. A classic experiment in the 1970’ showed this [8]. Theology students were instructed that they had to give a talk in a nearby room. Some were then told they had to hurry as the talk was very soon, others were told that they had plenty of time. Also some were instructed to give their talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan while others spoke on a non-helping topic. An actor was primed to look like he was in trouble and positioned en route to where the talk was to be given. Normally being primed with the Good Samaritan story would make it more likely that any of us would offer help to someone in distress, and presumably theology students even more so. Interestingly though, of those who were in a hurry, only 10% stopped, as opposed to 63% who had more time, and this was irrespective of the talk they were to give. Stress, busyness and anxiety, even in small doses, will make us less caring and other-minded, and chronic levels have a far worse effect.

Of course it is not just the manic speed and anxiety inducing consumer pressure that exacerbates stress and anxiety. Poverty and serious psycho-social stress are on the increase as the recession and austerity measures bite seriously. It is harder to feel kind, generous and be giving or loving to family, partners, friends and children, when there is not enough money to put food on the table to feed the children or oneself, or pay the fuel bills or the rent. That of course is the reality this Christmas for many many more than in previous years in our increasingly unequal society. Maybe politicians and bankers need to be placed on a permanent oxytocin drip, that might make christmans a lot happier for many in the most serious need.


[1]        J. Moll, R. Zahn, R. de Oliveira-Souza, F. Krueger, and J. Grafman, ‘The neural basis of human moral cognition’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 799–809, 2005.

[2]        L. B. Aknin, J. K. Hamlin, and E. W. Dunn, ‘Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children’, PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 6, p. e39211, Jun. 2012.

[3]        J. Costa-Font, M. Jofre-Bonet, and S. T. Yen, ‘Not All Incentives Wash Out the Warm Glow: The Case of Blood Donation Revisited’, SSRN eLibrary, Jul. 2011.

[4]        W. T. Harbaugh, U. Mayr, and D. R. Burghart, ‘Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations’, Science, vol. 316, no. 5831, p. 1622, 2007.

[5]        O. Brafman and R. Brafman, Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational behavior. Crown Business, 2008.

[6]        L. B. Aknin, C. P. Barrington-Leigh, E. W. Dunn, J. F. Helliwell, R. Biswas-Diener, I. Kemeza, P. Nyende, C. E. Ashton-James, and M. I. Norton, ‘Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal’, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, vol. No. 16415, 2010.

[7]        P. J. Zak, W. Matzner, and R. Kurzban, ‘The neurobiology of trust’, Scientific American Magazine, vol. 298, no. 6, pp. 88–95, 2008.

[8]        J. M. Darley and C. D. Batson, ‘“ From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 27, no. 1, p. 100, 1973.

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