The Gift of Giving

Want to be a little happier? Start Giving.

I've taken a couple of courses recently - one of them was on the concept of happiness. The course looked at extensive research about what helps us to become happier people. Among other behaviours (which I look forward to writing about in other blogs!) giving has shown through various studies to be an action that promotes happiness and well-being - and it is the giving which makes the individual happy - rather than the other way around (ie the happy person who then gives).

We as humans appear to be hardwired to loving and giving - it is seen to be a natural trait we have. And while we all know that giving actually feels good - i.e. makes us feel happy - did you know it leads to other positive consequences as well? 

What is it that we get out of giving to others?  And do you think that if we are getting so much out of it - does that make our giving 'selfish'?? Is it OK to make the most out of getting something in return? And if so, how can we maximise our giving?  Can we give 'too much'? Is there a 'downside' to giving? What might the extended consequences be with a simple act of giving? Read on, read on!

The Upside of giving

The positive effects of giving are quite astounding. It can enhance feelings of gratitude - knowing that you can give something to someone who may not be as fortunate as you or help someone who may be going through hard times helps you to feel useful and grateful for what you do have (time/money/peace). It can relieve you of feeling guilty or hopeless and helpless in difficult situations. It raises your own self perception as a giving and altruistic person and it can also jumpstart a cascade of positive social consequences. Giving also tends to make us feel more competent and capable in other areas of our life. Research has shown that elderly who volunteer their time tend to live longer and have less heart disease than those that don't. Giving can improve health outcomes - and is shown to improve immune function in some situations. It releases feel good hormones - endorphins and oxytocin. And (yay for us), we also benefit from reciprocity - one good turn generally deserves another. This results in givers tending to be more successful in life (financially/business), earning more money (they are often in the top income earners) and being more liked by others. They are able to harness a lot of extra resources from people around them (i.e. people like them and are likely to help them out) improving their circumstances in all areas of life.

I love this snippet from the Edx course, 'Becoming a Resilient Person: The Science of Stress Management and Promoting Wellbeing' which beautifully describes the feeling you get from giving (or even witnessing kindness):

"What good deeds do is trigger a sense of elevation. Elevation is a feeling, or something we experience, when we encounter what is called moral beauty. Moral beauty is when we see, or even just hear about, someone else engaging in compassionate, selfless behavior in the service of others. And so not only does it make us feel better, or encourage us to be better people, it is also likely to increase the likelihood we'll do something kind to someone else.
Elevation also has a common physical sign, and that is kind of a warm, expansive feeling in the chest. So when people say they feel it in the heart, it's actually true. Because new research has shown that elevation that's triggered through doing good deeds for others is connected to the vagus nerve, which regulates our heart rate. So for example, if you're doing a good deed such as helping a homeless person find food, not only will it give you that kind of a warm feeling in your chest, but it's also likely to change your heart rhythm and slow it down in a healthy manner. So when we speak about feelings in our heart, it's not just that it's a metaphor. It's actually a real outcome associated with doing good deeds for others, and that sense of elevation we experience when doing so.
(Clay Cook, PhD Associate Professor University of Washington)  

The down side of giving

Interestingly, givers can also end up on the bottom rung of financial earnings and happiness (hence the old notion of 'nice guys always finish last' - but it's not true!) This occurs when the givers give indiscriminately or tend to be self sacrificing, hence burning themselves out; giving away opportunities that would ultimately benefit them for the sake of others, (you may have witnessed this in some relationships). Unsuccessful givers (as they are termed) attend to the needs of others, but fail to give or look after themselves, leading to burnout. Burnout is commonly seen in people who are care-giving long term to loved ones suffering from conditions such as Alzheimers and cancer. These people often suffer negative consequences of their own health, including depression. Looking after yourself - which is a form of self compassion - is necessary for positive mental health and well-being. 

how to be a successful 'giver'

To make the most out of giving there are a few of things we can do.

Strangely enough one of the tips suggest that you should include yourself if possible in the giving process.  You can do this by ensuring that you don't give beyond your means (financially, mentally, physically or time wise). It helps to have a choice over who is the recipient of your generosity, and if possible, that you get to see the outcome of your generous behaviour. Indiscriminate giving can make you feel less happy about your giving behaviour and have the reverse effect of what was intended. Successful givers contain the cost of giving, they have filters and think about who and what they are giving to. They might 'maximise' their giving, by helping a number of people at once. If possible they make it fun and enjoyable for all parties involved.

Giving to charity is an obvious way of giving. Organisations such as Give Well can ensure you get the best bang for your buck. It pays to check in regularly, see where you money is going and how it is benefiting others, rather than just seeing a chunk disappear regularly from your pay packet. This way you will also get to experience a sense of authentic pride when you give - one of the aspects of being a successful giver.

suggestions for giving

Reflecting back on some of the kindest 'gifts' you have received, gives a good indication of what other might enjoy. These often involve what is termed a RAOK (Random Act of Kindness), often from a complete stranger. Some of the gifts I have received are:

  • Payment for a piece of macadamia brittle by a complete stranger when I didn't have cash on me.
  • A counselor giving me a free session when I was struggling financially.
  • A surprise card or note in the mail from someone, saying nice things about me when they knew I was feeling down.
  • A total stranger who payed for my and a colleagues coffee as we waited in the queue to be served. 
  • Twice I have had offers from strangers (and accepted them) at train stations for rides home when I have been stuck. Both were lovely and heart warming experiences.

You can choose to give a certain amount of your income to a charity of your choice (see Give Well for ideas and options). You can volunteer your time at the local SPCA, geriatric home, school or women's refuge. You can donate clothing, materials or other goods to your local charity. You can offer to help a neighbour (weed their garden, keep an eye on their house while they are away, look after their pets), bake a cake or cookies, send a care package to someone, write someone an unexpected note, bring someone flowers from your garden. The options are only limited by your imagination and they don't need to cost you a cent.

Ensure that the 'gift' you give is likely to be appreciated or wanted. For example, purchasing something that the person might find overwhelming or feel indebted to you, or purchasing a new animal if one has recently passed away, may not be the best choice.


Giving will make you happier. Successful givers attend to the needs of others, but also attend to the needs of themselves. They don't over extend themselves and take authentic pride in their ability to give.

Giving can be done with money, time, kindness, appreciation, gifting or simply offering love and acceptance and a listening ear.

It doesn't have to be big. A simple compliment, a wave or a smile. Giving up your place in line, paying for a cup of coffee for the person in line behind you are all things that can make someones day - and it can promote a pass-it-on or pay-it-forward mentality (for some idea's - click here.) Just think what your little good turn could do. You could change the world. :-)

Photo kindly 'gifted' to me by Andy Lovegrove

Photo kindly 'gifted' to me by Andy Lovegrove

Other resources for this article:

Sonja Lyubomirsky - The How of Happiness (Book)

Coursera - A Life of Happiness and Fulfilment (Course)

edX - Becoming a Resilient Person (Course)

Adam Grant - Give and Take (Book)

The Effects of Giving on Givers - Nicole Roberts & Matt Newman (Eds.) APA Books. (Article)

Helping Heal - The Activism Cure (Blog/Article)