People routinely give their time and money to others, often at a cost to themselves. Blood donation is one example of giving. Substantial research in psychology shows that adults worldwide feel happier spending money on others rather than on themselves. And the act of giving money to charity actually activates regions of your brain that would normally be activated when you have received something.
Children too are not immune to the feeling of joy that giving brings. A recent study with toddlers found that even very young children enjoy giving. This suggests that the act of giving may be hardwired in our brain, like eating or sleeping. It isn’t something that we have to be taught to do, we instinctively know how to do it.
The experiment on toddlers, published in June in the Public Library of Science journal, PLOS ONE, in an article titled “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children”, was done at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, by Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues. The study involved 23 toddlers, a monkey puppet, and goldfish crackers.
Each toddler was taken into a testing room and made to sit at a table facing the monkey puppet and the monkey puppet holding experimenter. The toddler and the monkey puppet had a bowl in front of them. The children were introduced to the monkey puppet and told that the puppet liked goldfish crackers. The fact that the toddlers believed the experimenter did not come as a surprise to parents of young children. And medical research has shown that toddlers think that non-humans like puppets have hopes and desires too, like loving goldfish crackers. When the children were brought into the room, the bowls were empty. The experimenter then “found” eight crackers and put them in a toddler’s bowl. She then “found” another cracker and gave that to the puppet, and then “found” another and asked the child to give it to the puppet. She finally asked the child to give a cracker from her bowl to the puppet. The children’s happiness quotient was measured at each step by the changes in their facial expressions. What the researchers found was that when a child gave the treat to the puppet or when the children gave their own treat to the puppet, they registered greater happiness than when they alone received the treats.
Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and originator of the counselling centre Mind Temple, Juhu, Mumbai, that caters to psychiatric, emotional and behavioural concerns in individuals, agrees and says that she uses the concept of giving therapeutically to treat her depressed patients. So apart from medication and counselling, she asks her patients to start giving their time to a cause outside of themselves, like visiting an orphanage and teaching children. She says that it helps her patients feel better by increasing their self-worth.
Timothy Wilson, professor, department of psychology, University of Virginia, US, and a researcher on the psychological benefits of giving, agrees with Dr Chhabria. He says in an email interview that “most people recognize that helping others will make them happy—but perhaps not the extent to which it does. The time we are least likely to realize it is when we are feeling down or blue. That is when it is hardest to get out and do something for somebody else, it is the time when it is most beneficial to do so. So, my advice is, if you are in the doldrums, look for opportunities to help another person.”
You don’t have to be down in the dumps to enjoy giving. The process is its own reward when you are emotionally healthy too.
The key to giving, according to Dr Wilson, is to feel that you are helping someone effectively. And there is no set amount of money you need to spend, as long as you know that you are helping. “If it comes to a choice between time and money,” Dr Wilson writes: “I think that time is better, especially if it leads to new social connections. Because if it does, then people get a double benefit: They feel that they are helping someone, and they are forging new relationships. This is important, because frequent satisfying interactions with other people are one of the best predictors of happiness.”
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.