Our Brains Are Wired To Give…
“Suppose you could be hooked up to a hypothetical “experience machine” that, for the rest of your life, would stimulate your brain and give you any positive feelings you desire. Most people to whom I offer this imaginary choice refuse the machine. It is not just positive feelings we want: we want to be entitled to our positive feelings.” — Dr. Martin Seligman
In 2014, a study led by neuroscientist Molly J. Crocket shed light on how much humans care about others relative to themselves. The results were surprising. They showed that, on average, people were willing to pay twice as much money to prevent someone else receiving an electric shock than the amount of money they would pay to prevent receiving the same amount of shock themselves.
At first, the conclusions seem puzzling. How does this fit with our survival bias, our innate sense of self-protection in the face of danger? A little experiment may help us understand this apparent contradiction.
In the next few days, do the following two things:
- Something fun.
- Something altruistic.
Plan both events and write about how you think doing those two different acts will make you feel. Then, immediately after completing the two activities, write down how you actually feel. At the end of the day, write down how you feel again, long after both events happened.
More likely than not, the high of doing something fun will last for a little bit and then fade away. It is a satisfaction that consumes itself shortly after the activity ends. If you go to the cinema and you enjoyed the movie, you will feel good after leaving the premises, but you won’t carry that feeling much longer after that.
However, if you perform a random act of kindness the feeling-good effect will endure for hours after the event happened. Try helping someone who can’t help you back; do it anonymously, or listening to someone in need. Or donating to a cause you truly believe in. The positive feelings stemming from the altruistic act will last for a long time after the event happened.
… And Positive Psychology Knows Why
Positive psychology is the field behind the scientific theory of happiness. Not so long ago, psychology focused only on helping troubled minds go back to a healthy state; Patients suffering from depression and other mental disorders. It sought to bring these patients back from “-10 to 0” on the well-being scale.
Positive psychology, on the other hand, looks to answer the question “what can make a healthy mind thrive?”. It looks scientifically into how we can go from “0 to +10” on the well-being scale. The father of positive psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman, author of books like “Authentic Happiness” and “Learned Optimism” and the founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
After years of research, he came up with 5 core pillars that act as the infrastructure to our psychological well-being and happiness. It is called the PERMA model:
- P for Positive Emotion: feeling good, optimism, pleasure and enjoyment.
- E for Engagement: doing fulfilling work, having exciting hobbies, immersing oneself in a sense of “flow”.
- R for Relationships: deep social connections, love, intimacy, emotional and physical interaction with others.
- M for Meaning: having a purpose in life.
- A for Accomplishment: setting and pursuing goals, realizing your ambition, living with a sense of achievement.
You can experience all of these in a single act of giving, whether it’s sharing a meal with a friend or donating a large sum to a good cause.
Why Giving Fulfills Us
Giving adds to our lives in many different ways, but is also exactly in line with the PERMA model.
- When we give, we generate positive emotions. This, among other things, triggers a physical reaction: the release of dopamine. This hormone is secreted by the brain and regulates pleasure. It also helps us create habits by stimulating the repetition of the activity that brought us pleasure in the first place, over and over again.
- Giving also helps us make our relationships more engaging. It enhances the quality of our interactions with others. To receive the appreciation of someone we have just helped is not only rewarding at an individual level, but also a powerful way to cement our social bond with that person.
However, giving goes well beyond facilitating positive emotions or better interactions with others. It can become a profound driver of our success in life, by contributing directly to the meaning and accomplishment components of the PERMA model.
Giving As Purpose
In “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Penn’s psychologist Angela Duckworth, I learned about Kat Cole. Cole started her career waitressing at Hooters while finishing her high school. She later rose up to become vice president of the company at age 26. Today, Kat Cole is Group President of Focus Brands, an investor, humanitarian and advisor.
Here’s her attitude on giving:
“By doing good for just one person, in just one moment, you can affect the trajectory of many things, of many lives, all over the world. Even if in some situations it’s not easy to be kind, gracious or positive, keep in mind it’s not just that moment that you are affecting, it’s many moments into the future.”
She differentiates between productive achievers and destructive achievers. As per her own description in a recent interview:
“There are a lot of people who have been incredibly successful by the typical person’s definition, financially or in terms of career acceleration, but have done it destructively, by not lifting others up and bringing them along. Then there are those who have been productive achievers, who have also brought others along with them and made a difference.”
For Cole, her giving attitude implied raising others and bringing them along in her path towards growth. A deep sense of purpose, rooted on an abundance mentality, had a significant impact on her professional success.
Happiness has to be earned. It cannot be chased. It cannot be manufactured. Happiness is about the consistency of our daily actions with our principles. The way we respond to the daily demands of life. In that context, a virtuous circle of gratitude and giving — as proven by positive psychology, the science of happiness — becomes a critical element of a fulfilling life.
And now. . . THE BIG Sooooooooooo:
LIFE is not a zero-sum game. An abundance mindset is both possible and practical. Science has shown our brains are wired to give because they prolong positive emotions from such interactions. Positive Psychology confirms this and gives us a model we can use to become productive achievers: PERMA.