It’s Giving · ep. 53

Giving Like The Grinch

What are your thoughts on giving? I don’t mean, “It’s giving,” as in, when I wear all black, it’s giving Wednesday Adams, like it’s my vibe. I want to talk about giving more like it’s giving the Grinch at the end of the movie. 

What do you think makes people happier: giving or receiving? I mean, getting presents is exciting, who doesn’t like gifts for their birthday or holidays, amirite? It’s nice to be on the receiving end, for sure. But who is happier, those who give or those who receive? This has actually been studied and scientifically proven, multiple times. 

Science of Giving

Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin at the University of British Columbia teamed up with Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School for a series of experiments. In one study, people received an envelope containing either $5 or $20 with a note–some got a note that told them to spend the money on themselves, others got a note that told them to spend it on someone else or donate it to a charity. Later on, those people were asked how they spent the money and how they were feeling. Those who spent the money on others were happier than those who spent the money on themselves.

Other studies have shown similar results. More than 600 people were asked how much they spent on gifts for themselves, and how much they spent on gifts for others and charity donations. Each of them rated their level of happiness, and those who spent more money on others than themselves were happier. And a survey showed that in 120 out of 136 countries around the world, people who had recently donated to a charity were more satisfied in life.

Another interesting study was conducted by the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Researchers told 50 people that in a few weeks they would receive close to $100. Half of the participants were asked to spend it on themselves, and they agreed. The other half were asked to spend it on someone else, and they agreed to do that. Before anyone received money, they were asked to think of a friend they wanted to give a gift to and how much they would spend on that friend’s gift. THEN researchers did MRI scans on the participants. Even before money was handed out, those who were planning on spending the money on other people had higher levels of happiness.

Giving and Happiness

Studies have also examined what elements of giving will give you the most happiness. In a study by Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan, over a two week-period college students journaled every day about how they felt and whether they helped someone or a cause that day. Those who did something helpful by choice, because they wanted to help others, felt better than those who didn’t feel they had a choice, felt guilty or obligated to help. So deciding to give because we want to will help us feel happier.

How your giving is given can also impact the amount of happiness you experience. Lara Aknin, from earlier, handed out Starbucks gift cards to people. Some people were instructed to use the gift card to take someone to get coffee. Others she instructed to give the gift card away to someone and not go with them to Starbucks. Another group was told to spend the gift card on themselves, and half were to go to Starbucks alone, the other half to go with a friend, but they couldn’t spend the gift card on other people. Which group was happiest? I’m sure you can guess. Those who went to Starbucks with someone and used the gift card on them were happier than the other groups. This shows us connecting with people when giving, makes a difference.

Benefits of Giving

There are also other benefits to giving. Giving is good for our health for multiple reasons. Whether you give someone service or a gift, your brain releases oxytocin, helping us feel more connected to them; dopamine, providing a feeling of reward or pleasure; and serotonin, making you feel happier. Giving can also lower your blood pressure, reduce stress, release endorphins and give you a self-esteem boost, and help you live longer, too! 

Giving also positively impacts our friendships. It can help us build closer relationships with people. A study even found that people who gave more generously had more close friends. Giving helps you feel more purpose in your life, giving it more meaning. Even though you may be young or feel like you can’t fix all of the problems in the world, you do what you can and take acting. Doing something that made a difference to someone else can feel really satisfying.

While researching these studies about giving, I noticed that the outcomes weren’t tied to how much a person gave, like someone who gives away a million dollars isn’t necessarily going to be happier than someone who gave away a quarter or even gave free service like shoveling someone’s driveway. Giving doesn’t have to cost a lot or even be monetary, it doesn’t have to cost money. There are lots of ways to give freely for free that still feel great to the giver and receiver.

Motivation Matters

I think what matters more is where your motivation comes from, are you giving because it looks good on the ‘gram or your resume? Some people give so they themselves can receive recognition, like they make a large donation for the photo of them holding a giant check. At my kids’ school they do Be Kind shoutouts when a teacher reports seeing a student helping others and giving service. But I’ve heard some kids complain about how they’ve been doing lots of kind things that have gone unnoticed–they want to be announced and get a Be Kind bracelet. I think they’re missing the point.

And I know throughout this whole episode I’ve been listing off the benefits of giving for the giver, which are great. But ultimately, it’s not about you, it’s about the receiver. It’s about choosing to share what you have–whether that’s money or joy or light–with someone who needs it.

Free Ways to Give

Here are some free ways to give. Brighten someone else’s day by waving hello. Text a friend to let them know you care. Learn the cashier’s name and say thank you. Pay it forward for a stranger in line behind you. Take dinner to your neighbor who just had surgery. Offer to babysit a friend’s younger siblings for free so they can spend some quality time with their parents. Donate money you earned to a local nonprofit that serves your community. These are just a few ways to give for free, small things that make a big difference.

So now I’m going to give you an invitation: over the next week, give anonymously, meaning without anyone knowing it was you, give to someone else–it could be money, a donation, or service. Do it and see how you feel right afterward and even a few days later. I’d love to hear about what you did and how you felt, so you can send me a DM or email to report.


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