Christmas is a time to exchange gifts with friends and family. Those of us who haven’t completed their shopping yet will frantically try to do so within the next couple of days. This time of year is not, however, only about giving to our loved ones. Historically, Christmas has always been associated with good will and giving, not just to those we know, but to anyone in need. But, why do we do it and is giving something that only benefits the receivers?
Scientists have known for a while that helping others goes hand in hand with longer life and better health. Such improved well-being could be a result of the ‘stress-buffering’ effect of giving. For example, providing help improves our mood and caring for others is accompanied by the release of feel-good hormones (such as oxitocin and prolactin) and natural opioids. Indeed, older people who dedicate time to helping others, tend to cope much better with stressful life events such as illness, financial difficulties or death of a loved one.
We know that people on the lower end of the income ladder tend to give a greater proportion of their income to charities than the wealthy. Scientists have also found that people from lower social ranks are more generous towards strangers in distress and often have more trust in others. Considering that they have fewer resources, experience more daily stress and live in a more threatening environment, this seems like a paradox. There is, however, logic behind such charitable behaviour. Since people with lower incomes are less independent and have less control over their lives, they tend to rely more on others. Such interdependency encourages individuals to form stronger social bonds and makes us more attuned to the needs of others. It is these social connections that buffer those less affluent from stress, therefore encouraging them to invest more in their bonds with others.
Would it then be possible to increase empathy in order to encourage people to help others? It appears that the starting point in this process is self-compassion. Writing about a value that is important to us makes us feel more sympathy and love towards ourselves. As a result, we feel less threatened by others, less vulnerable to criticism and more inclined to be charitable.
Another psychological experience that affects giving is the use of intuition versus deliberation. It seems that the more we rely on intuition in decision making, the more cooperative our actions are. Intuitive thinking is faster and more emotional than rational deliberation and the more time we take to reflect, the more selfish our decisions become. Logic is cold indeed!
Does this mean that we are naturally generous, but that overthinking can cause us to override this instinct? Well, this could depend on the amount of cooperation required in our daily lives. We usually interact with the same people on a daily basis and, since we value our reputation, we try our best to maintain good relationship with these people. Perhaps this is particularly true if we are of lower social rank and therefore, more dependent on others. No wonder our automatic reaction would be to cooperate.
Does this mean we should rely on our generous intuition and not spend too much time thinking about what to get our loved ones this Christmas? We can’t say; but, whatever we choose to do this year, what better time than the festive season to increase our bonds with others and help those in need?
Post by Jadwiga Nazimek
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