Quote: Anne Frank, Picture: Elizabeth Waight Photography
Giving may seem like an obvious topic for this time of year but ‘it’s not just for Christmas’ – giving is relevant every single day of the year. Gifts yes, but also time, help, friendship, charity, donations, blood, a hug, a kiss or simply a smile.
The Evolution of Giving
If you conjure up an image of our ancient ancestors out on the planes struggling to survive, it’s not a helpful friendly giving sort of a chap that comes to mind. Being helpful doesn’t feel like a natural behaviour to display in life and death scenarios where surely the priority becomes looking out for number one?
Research suggests not, that altruism is actually favoured over selfishness (although science doesn’t always agree on why) meaning that humans evolved to give over taking, because it actually aided survival. To work with and cooperate with other people proved to be a much more effective way of staying alive than not caring about anyone else. Ultimately this means that we have evolved to be givers, even when in the harshest of environments.
Our Brain Rewards Us For Giving
As a result, deep within the more primitive area of our brain lies a mechanism that releases the ‘Happiness Trifecta’ of neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, when we display altruistic behaviour.
Initially, the act of giving leads to the release of oxytocin which boosts mood and counters the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol. This creates a positive cycle, encouraging us to want to help others or ‘give’ more and also triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, which lead us to pleasant and rewarding feelings.
Other benefits also result from this, oxytocin for example allows us to more readily form social attachments[i], to more effectively read and infer other people’s mental states and to show greater emotional empathy[ii]. From a physiological perspective Oxytocin is also known to reduce pain and enhance wound healing[iii]. Dopamine has its own set of benefits including regulating mood, behaviour, sleep[iv] and cognition (i.e. thinking and decision making)[v]. Serotonin then tops the benefits up further by aiding effective sleep, relaxation, appetite control, improving memory formation and enhancing learning capability.
The release of these chemicals when we give to others, may help explain some of the broader health related benefits associated with altruistic behaviour. Studies have for example found that altruistic behaviour reduces our risk of death by buffering the impact of stress[vi]. So, in short – giving is as good for us both psychologically and physiologically as it is to the person we are giving to.
Giving is Good for Business
Not convinced yet? U.S. Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant who has written a book called Give and Take explains that takers are people who are self-serving in their interactions and who always wants to know ‘what’s in it for me’. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people that he calls givers, who approach the majority of interactions with the question “What can I do for you?”
Grant surveyed over 30,000 people across industries worldwide and found that even when accounting for cultural differences that most people actually lie in the middle. These matchers, try to keep an even balance of give and take – “I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.”
Initially his results look negative, he found that the lowest performing people were givers. But he also found that the very highest performing people were also givers. In my work I see both, those who give and are taken advantage of at one end of the spectrum and those who give without being walked over, who ultimately get far ahead of matchers and takers.
Grant explains using how Adam Rifkin a very successful serial entrepreneur who spends a great deal of his time helping others is a positive example of how to do this right. Rifkin’s personal key to giving without being taken advantage of is what he calls the five minute favour. He says “You don’t have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi to be a giver. You just have to find small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” Other tips that Grant offers include: scheduling time for giving, ‘chunking’ your helping behaviours into blocks of time rather than ‘sprinkling’ them throughout your week, giving in ways that align with your own and the organisations goals rather than doing things that force you to make tradeoffs and doing things that allow you to see the impact of your giving – where things make a significant difference.
So, while it may be nice to receive presents, if you’re feeling a little scrooge like, remember that it’s also good to give – good for the soul, your health and if you do it right even your career.
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Grant, A. (2014). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.