Giving Feels Good (and How to Ensure Those Good Feelings Equal Good Outcomes)Oct 25, 2022
Giving Feels Good (and How to Ensure Those Good Feelings Equal Good Outcomes)
By Brian Angus & Recha Bergstrom, MD
Giving is often considered to be a selfless act, however in committing this selfless act we can actually reap personal rewards as well. It feels good to give, and likely that feeling motivates us, at least to some extent, to continue giving to others.
“The concept of the "helper's high" arose in the 1980s, and has been confirmed in various studies since then. It consists of positive emotions following selfless service to others. Greater health and increased longevity are associated with this psychological state.” wrote Larry Dossey, in an article detailing some of the research in this field.
Studies that have used physiological measures suggest that giving contributes to feeling good. Moll et al. used fMRI to observe participants' brain activity while they made donations to charities. Results from the study showed that the reward pathway in the brain – the mesolimbic system - that is activated while receiving monetary rewards is also activated when making donations.
Jenny Santi’s book – The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving – details how altruism actually “activates the same pleasure centers of the brain stimulated by food, sex, and drugs.” In a study by Dunn et al., researchers collected data on peoples’ income, how they spent their money, and their self-reported levels of happiness. The results of the study suggested that the people who spent more of their money on others were happier.
The positive effects of giving likely explain, in part, why Americans gave $484.85 billion to charities in 2021. Overall, it seems that people are generous, and this is a great thing! However, good intentions do not always equal good outcomes.
People feel good when they donate regardless of whether that donation has a positive impact or not. That is not to say that people do not care if their donation doesn’t have a positive impact, we would likely be upset if we found out our donation wasn’t doing the good we expected it to do. However, unless you actively seek out information about the effectiveness of a charity you are donating to, you will likely assume that your donations are being used effectively.
Research has indicated that we are more concerned about efficacy when helping if we are helping ourselves or family members, but not when we are helping strangers. This lack of concern may provide some answers as to why many ineffective charities continue to receive funding.
While it would be ideal to ensure that the outcomes of our generous efforts are highly positive ones, creating the time and finding the motivation to do that can be difficult. Luckily, charity evaluators like GiveWell and Giving What We Can exist. These organizations independently use evidence and data to decide which charities are doing the most good for the world, and encourage people to donate to those charities. Funds like The Physician Philanthropist Fund and Long-Term Future Fund can also help you find effective charities to give to that support cause areas you have an interest in supporting.
By utilizing these organizations you can still feel the powerful positive effects of giving while having peace of mind that your donations are being put to good use.
You can be the change you want to see in the world through effective, efficient, and impactful philanthropy. Check out my course, The Physician Philanthropist, for a comprehensive education on and strategy for maximizing the impact of your giving both for you and your causes
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