Why Giving Feels So Darned Good

It is somehow heartening to discover we’re hard wired for behavior that all the great spiritual traditions have urged for centuries. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul exhorts, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” In the Qu’ran, the practice of zakat, or “alms giving,” is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; it is intended not only to provide welfare for needy Muslims but to purify the spirit of the giver (who is cleansed of greediness and selfishness) and the receiver (who is saved from the humiliation of begging and envy). The Torah orders, “If there is a needy person among you, don’t harden your heart; don’t shut your hand against your needy kin. For there will never cease to be people with need in your land, which is why I command you to open your heart to the poor and to the needy kin in your land.”

In my parents’ families, both of which suffered hard times in the Great Depression in Puerto Rico, giving was valued as an outgrowth of their faith. My maternal grandmother, widowed as a young mother in her twenties, worked two teaching jobs to support not only her daughter but her own mother and the children of her mentally ill brother. “She was so generous,” my mother recalls. “On Saturday the campesinos [peasant farmers] would come to ask for alms, and she would save food for them, give them coffee, give them a little money. She would also find medical care for people who needed it and arrange for them to go to the hospital without paying. She felt that God had given her so much that she had to help people who were in need.”

My father, the youngest of seven children, was lucky to get hand-me-down shoes to wear, but nonetheless my grandparents fed and housed an ever-evolving array of cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends and acquaintances; no one was ever turned away. “Mama would share what she had with people whom she thought were in a more needy situation than her,” remembers my father. “She was very strapped for money, but her sense of compassion and charity were very high. Papa would go along with that; he was very generous too.”

Feeding others is a classically human way of bonding; it likely has its roots in that most basic of interactions, the mother feeding the child. James Baraz recalls being at a meditation retreat in Massachusetts, washing pots and pans in the kitchen: “Here comes the manager of the retreat center, and he has something wrapped in aluminum foil. ‘This is for your good work.’ It’s this really big piece of cheesecake with glaze and nuts — at this retreat, an extra piece of bread and tea were a big deal. I broke it into four pieces, kept one, and put three pieces in the bowls of some other yogis I felt connected with. At tea time, I watched and saw each person’s mouth drop. And then one person took her piece and broke it into another bowl to give away. The interesting thing is that 30 years later, I still feel a connection with five other people through that sharing.”

Scientists would say Baraz’s feel-good sensations are biochemically rooted. “Your good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are actually evoked by self-giving love,” Stephen Post explains, co-author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving and the founder and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Post defines self-giving love as “compassionate care for others that is unconditional; it’s not dependent on reciprocation.”

So are we neurologically programmed (and biochemically rewarded) to give because we get an evolutionary advantage by strengthening social bonds, which helps ensure the survival of the group? Quite possibly, since the impulse can even be seen in one of our closest primate relatives. Duke University’s Brian Hare and Suzy Kwetuenda from Lola y Bonobo, a Congolese center for orphaned bonobos (a type of chimpanzee), gave hungry bonobos access to a room containing food one by one. The bonobo could see into two other rooms, one empty and one containing another bonobo. “We found that the test subjects preferred to voluntarily open the recipient’s door to allow them to share the highly desirable food that they could have easily eaten alone,” Hare wrote when the study was published in the journal Current Biology earlier this year.

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