Why Giving Feels So Darned Good

By Diana Rico For Ode Magazine’s December 2011 Issue

Five years ago, I was coming out of Vidiots, my favorite video store in Venice, California, when I spotted him sitting on the ground against the painted brick wall. He was dressed in rags and his skin had that dusky look of someone long homeless.

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“A dollar so I can eat?” He said it by rote, without looking at me; underneath I heard no hope.

I tucked my videos under my arm, dug around in my wallet and bent down to hand him some money. As I pressed it into his palm, I made eye contact, said hello and smiled. His whole face lit up.

“Bless you! Thank you!” His watery blue eyes had that luminous, raw fragility one sometimes sees in the mentally ill. I squeezed his hand. He squeezed mine back, then fumbled through some plastic bags on the ground. Pulling out a plastic necklace, he held it out to me.

“You are a queen! You are beautiful! Thank you! Here.” The necklace was of green beads with a fake jade pendant, Cleopatra-like. I hesitated; he had so very, very little, and I knew I would never wear it. But he was insistent. “This is for you. You are a queen.” I bowed my head, suddenly overwhelmed. This unexpected exchange was cracking my heart wide open.

“If you knew the power of generosity, you would not let a single meal go by without sharing it,” the Buddha said. Indeed, generosity is so highly valued in Buddhism that “giving is the first of the Ten Perfections that the Buddha taught about,” says James Baraz, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California and co-author of the new book Awakening Joy: Ten Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness.

Giving — in Sanskrit, dana — was advocated by the Buddha because it “both acknowledges the interdependence we have for each other and is the active practice of letting go, which is where freedom from suffering lies,” explains Baraz. “When we’re giving without any sort of expectation, just because we’ve been moved, we’re awakening the natural gladness that comes when the heart opens.”

We’ve all felt the high that comes from giving, the “natural gladness” Baraz talks about. Recent science suggests there is a biological basis for it. In 2006, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and a team of National Institutes of Health researchers gave subjects some money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. They found that the mere thought of giving money to charity activates the primitive part of the brain associated with the pleasures of eating and having sex. Functional MRIs indicated that donating money stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, the reward center in the brain, which is responsible for dopamine-mediated euphoria.

A year later, a study by Ariel Knafo and other researchers from the psychology department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem discovered evidence for a genetic predisposition toward giving. Participants in a staged game were given money and told they could give all, part or none of it to an unidentified player. The subjects’ DNA samples were analyzed and compared against their reactions. Those who had certain variants of a gene called “AVPR1a” gave an average of nearly 50 percent more money than those not displaying that variant. AVPR1a facilitates the production of a receptor that enables the social-bonding hormone arginine vasopressin to act on brain cells. “The experiment provided the first evidence, to my knowledge, for a relationship between DNA variability and real human altruism,” wrote Knafo.

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