Generosity is good for the heart

How does giving to others work wonders for our hearts and minds? Katie Scott explores the relationship between generosity and wellbeing…

My friend pauses while she thinks. She has been working for charities for decades and I want to know why she believes people give. ‘The philanthropists I work with have often worked hard all their lives, made money and now want to give back to society,’ she says. ‘Some have sold their businesses and want to find a new sense of purpose in their lives and to redefine their identity.

Other people are driven by their values and are perhaps critically aware of inequality in the world, while others are seeking status.” She adds that some of the most generous people she has worked with give anonymously, and that a sense of satisfaction is a motivating factor for nearly everyone.

Being generous makes us happy. Neuroscientists in Switzerland have visually captured the interplay of brain regions. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record what was happening in the brains of participants when they made a public pledge. The results confirmed the link between generosity and happiness.

Other studies proved that being generous causes the brain to secrete chemicals including serotonin, which regulates our moods, oxytocin, which boosts our sense of connection with others, and dopamine – the pleasure chemical. These are all “happy” hormones.

Positive psychology coach Roz Colthart says generosity changes our view of ourselves: ‘You begin to view yourself as an altruistic and compassionate person, which can promote a sense of confidence, optimism and usefulness. This improves a sense of meaningfulness and value in your life.’

And generosity deepens your relationships with others. ‘It leads people to like you, appreciate you and create a better sense of connection,’ Colthart suggests. It can also be a distraction from woes in our own lives as we focus instead of others.

In stark contrast, feeling the need to be guarded with anything – your time, your love and material possessions – makes you feel bad. It lowers your emotional frequency by making you feel stingy, disconnected and guilty. This can spike our stress hormone, cortisol.

The emotional impact, as is often the way, is mirrored by a physical impact. The University of Buffalo carried out a study of 846 participants over five years and discovered a connection between how much people helped others and a decreased mortality risk. Another team – whose work was reported in Greater Good magazine – honed in on blood pressure. The scientists measured the impact of giving money to others, and found that the biggest spenders had the lowest blood pressure. Generosity is good for your soul and good for your heart.

These studies looked at financial generosity and small actions that make others feel good. All acts of generosity have a positive impact on individuals and wider society. Indeed, a University of Berkeley study suggests that it is hardwired within us to be generous. It quotes research that found consistent displays of generosity among young children, connected to their ‘innate drive to cooperate and help others’.

The paper adds, however, that this behaviour becomes ‘more selective and nuanced’ as we grow older. We then have to consciously choose to be generous. Here, it’s important to remember that generosity can be shown in seemingly small as well as grand gestures. It can also be an antidote to what we are feeling ourselves – a way of balancing out our emotional scale; such as smiling at a stranger when we are feeling lonely, or feeling pressed for time so giving time to someone or something in need.

This can be difficult when we feel we have nothing more to give. As a mother of four, there are times – usually at the end of the day – when even my husband asking for a hug can feel like another demand that I simply can’t cope with. These are moments of sheer exhaustion when there is nothing left in my cup. But the hug gives me a boost – a moment of connection – and that miniscule act of giving can lift me when I feel drained.

There are times when being generous can feel almost impossible. But remember that something that may seem almost inconsequential to you, may mean the world to someone else. A little can go a long way when it comes to generosity – and your heart and mind will thank you for it.

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