IN THIS POST WE EXPLORE THE NEUROSCIENCE OF GIVING THANKS TO GUEST CONTRIBUTOR, EXPERT AND BEST-SELLING AUTHOR, EVA RITVO, MD. 

Humans are social animals, so it’s no surprise that we are wired to help one another. In the words of psychologist Stefan Klein, it’s “Survival of the nicest.” The altruism centre of the brain is considered a deep brain structure, part of the primitive brain. Consider this…we know when we see a child in trouble, our primitive instincts kick in and we spring into action before we can even “think”.

In our complex modern society, there are many ways to give to others and demonstrate kindness. The good news is that we now understand that both the giver and the receiver benefit from the relationship. Giving is a powerful way for creating more personal joy and improving overall health, moreover it makes our world a kinder, gentler place to live.

While the brain is remarkably complex, the neurochemical drivers of happiness are quite easy to identify. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocinmake up the Happiness Trifecta. Any activity that increases the production of these neurochemicals will cause a boost in mood. It’s really that simple.

But the benefits just don’t stop at moods! Serotonin is connected to sleep, digestion, memory, learning, and appetite. Dopamine is connected to motivation and arousal. Oxytocin, “The cuddle hormone,” is among the most ancient of our neurochemicals and has a powerful effect on the brain and the body. When oxytocin begins to flow, blood pressure decreases, bonding increases, social fears are reduced, trust and empathy are enhanced. Oxytocin is also an anti-inflammatory, can reduce pain and speed wound healing. Helping others triggers a release of oxytocin, which has the effect of boosting your mood as previously mentioned and counteracting the effects of cortisol (the dreaded stress hormone) which is in overabundance due to the increasing pressures of living in a globalized world and 24-hour news cycle.

Oxytocin binds us to one another and scientists have discovered that the higher your levels of oxytocin, the more you want to help others.

Giving allows us to secrete all the chemicals at once, so we owe it to ourselves to give as often as possible! These wonderful feelings have been nicknamed “helper’s high” and “givers gain.”

Helping others can take on many forms. Small repeated boosts of the ‘Happiness Trifecta’ will produce the most benefit, so find ways to give and to give often. Opening a door, helping a stranger change a tire, donating time or money, and giving advice are all meaningful ways to give. Anytime we step outside of ourselves long enough to help someone else, something wonderful is waiting for us when we return: Happiness Trifecta neurochemicals are all boosted!

Both the giver and the receiver can directly impact the other’s brain in a positive way.

Both the giver and the receiver can directly impact the other’s brain in a positive way.

Helping others impacts our brain in many positive ways beyond the short term chemical changes:

Mirror Neurons: We all have portions of our brain that fire when we see someone expressing an emotion or performing an act.  Helping others is often a highly social activity and a powerful way to transmit emotions.  If you offer someone a smile, you will trigger the mirror neurons in their brain and they almost can’t help but smile with you.  Both the giver and the receiver can directly impact the other’s brain in a positive way.  

Empathy: There are structures in your brain that are dedicated to helping you see things from the perspectives of others. These mental processes get some great exercise when you put yourself in the shoes of another person and try to give them what they need. The portions of our brain that we use, become more skilled over time.  As we practice kindness, we develop the empathy center of our brain.

When most people think of giving, they may have too narrow a focus. All giving works wonders. How can you help others? Is there a cause you support? A friend that needs help? A stranger that needs a random act of kindness? Filling every day with small acts of giving is an effect way to bring happiness to yourself and others. Even just smiling at someone is an act of giving and will brighten both of your days. Starbucks owes its extraordinary success not just to the addictive powers of caffeine, but also to the power of the smile. You can give one away multiple times a day at no cost, and in the process, boost your mood and your health.

The next time you check out at the grocery store, try telling the person, “I hope everyone is nice to you today!” You’re almost guaranteed to get a smile. The phrases, ”Great to see you!” and “You did a good job on that project!” cost nothing, yet everyone gains. Combine the words with a smile and you’ll boost your investment and your return. So, give, give often, and bask in the mental and physical effects of your actions.  

Like so much of our daily lives lately, giving has gone online. There are many sites that can help you in your desire to give. Charity Navigator and Just Give are two of the largest sites that will help you find a cause that is meaningful to you and educate you about the various organizations trying to help. Volunteer Match will help you find the right place to give of yourself and your time and Kindsum works to connect people who need help of any kind with those willing to provide it.  There is also a new type of online giving emerging; Global Village Co are working to create an app that matches strangers to provide emotional support and advice to those who are going through similar situations, tapping into the power of cognitive empathy and in the process, integrating non-monetary, non-time intensive giving into a modern wellness routine. 

There are almost endless ways to make being kind a habit and it is sure to lift your mood and enhance your sense of well-being. Why not give it a try and see the results for yourself? The happiest people I know are the ones that give the most and have integrated being kind into their lives daily!


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This article was written by guest contributor, Eva Ritvo, MD, a Miami Beach psychiatrist with over 25 years of practicing in Miami Beach, Florida. She is author of BeKindr – The Transformative Power of Kindness and the co-author of The Beauty Prescription and The Concise Guide to Marriage and Family Therapy. A regular on major media, Dr. Ritvo provides expert commentary on TV & radio, is a frequent source for journalists. and public speaker.  She is the host of the PBS series. She was honored with the “Women Worth Knowing” Award by the Miami Commission for Women in 2018. She has been featured in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, WebMD, SELF magazine, Ladies Home Journal, O Magazine, Allure, and many others. Dr. Ritvo actively writes for Psychology Today and this is an adaptation of an article first published in Psychology Today.

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