The Tao of Giving

“Nothing brings me more happiness than trying to help the most vulnerable people in society. It is a good and essential part of my life, a kind of destiny.”

-Diana, Princess of Wales

July 1, 1961 – August 31, 1997

Things are not easy right now for many people, and it’s starting to dawn on us that it may be this way for a while.

And even if we’re not personally dealing with the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, or food insecurity, the echoes of suffering in our world still reverberate within us since we are fundamentally good-hearted, empathetic human beings.

In fact, rates of anxiety and depression have reached unprecedented levels in the U.S. and across the world, up threefold since just the start of the year, before the pandemic. In a recent KFF tracking poll, 53% of U.S. respondents reported being increasingly anxious or depressed – and that was just in July. 

Likewise, the levels of substance abuse, suicide, and other health conditions due to the mental health crisis may eventually cause more long-term damage than the Coronavirus itself. 

So, whether it’s exercise, pursuing old hobbies or rekindling new passions, or endless Zoom chats with friends and family, we’re all struggling to stay mentally healthy and add some joy and light to our lives. 

(Note: online shopping may or may not be a positive coping mechanism, but it sure works great for me!)

But there’s another method of boosting our happiness and enriching our lives these days: giving.

Can giving to thers enrich our lives, keep us healthy, AND help the world? 

Even before the pandemic, we were giving back, donating, and volunteering more than ever. In 2019, charitable giving reached $449.64 billion in the U.S., which was an increase of more than 5% since the previous year, 2018. 

And while corporations and foundations made up a significant portion of that total number, it was actually individual, hard-working Americans who gave the most. In fact, giving from individuals reached $309.66 billion in 2019 or 69% of total charitable gifts and donations.

And that just covers monetary donations or financial support. But remember that we’re seeing a whole host of ways people can give of themselves and help others: we’re offering our time, voices, focus, energy, and skills like never before. 

If there’s any ray of hope during these times, it’s the small stories emerging the reconfirm our humanity:

  • Giving a call to talk or going grocery shopping for a lonely senior who lives alone.
  • Mentoring someone young, offering to teach them new skills online.
  • Mowing the yard and taking out the trash cans for our neighbors.
  • Using social media to raise awareness for different causes and charities in need.
  • Children with lemonade stands to collect money not for themselves, but to give to their people in their communities.
  • Supporting teachers, healthcare workers, and other front-liners who take risks every day to keep us all safe.

Of course, we know it feels good when we do something nice for someone else, even if it’s in a “warm and fuzzy” theoretical sense.

But it turns out there are some significant and proven benefits when we donate to charity, help someone in need, or just volunteer. 

According to numerous credible studies, the tangible benefits of giving include increases in:

  1. Feelings of connection and engagement
  2. Affirmation of our value to others
  3. Levels of life satisfaction
  4. Lasting improvements in overall happiness
  5. Reduced mortality rates
  6. Longevity rates
  7. Levels of learning and mental awareness
  8. Feelings of daily gratitude
  9. Prosocial behaviors
  10. Empathy

The physiology of charity

When we look at that list, I can’t help but notice these benefits are some of the same offered by anti-depressant medications, exercise, or even being in a loving relationship.

That’s no coincidence, as scientists have mapped a neural connection in the part of the brain that registers reward processing, like when we eat our favorite food, win a sporting match, or even hit the lottery.

In a research study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, scientists tracked the brain images of participants, paying close attention to how their brain activity changed as a response to altruism.

They found that our brain activity is stimulated in two profound ways when we get in a philanthropic mood and give to others.

One is in the mesolimbic pathway, the area that dispenses “feel good” hormones and chemicals like dopamine. The second area of our brain that is stimulated by charitable giving is the subgenual region, which helps us form social attachments.

Why do people give?

Now that we understand the physiological basis for why we feel great when we help our fellow woman or man, let’s look at the common motivations for doing so. And beware – it’s not always just out of the goodness of our heart, but has a more primal or utilitarian basis.

One of the best studies into the topic comes from a Professor William Harbaugh at the University of Oregon, who isolated three theories as to why people give to charity or good causes:

  1. People give to be altruistic, focusing on making a positive impact or solving a problem, like volunteering at a soup kitchen to help feed the hungry.
  2. The next theory may call into question our motivations, as Harbaugh claimed that some people enjoy the feeling of making “autonomous decisions” about who to help, when, and to what degree, experiencing pleasure from that control or even feelings of power.
  3. Thirdly, people also give to charities because it enhances their social value or boosts their social status. We see evidence of this when we donate to a cause and then share that fact on social media, feeling the reward two-fold.

Who gives the most?

We mentioned that individuals gave almost $7 out of every $10 in 2019, but who among us gives the most? A study by the University of Notre Dame conducted a study and found these characteristics and demographics of the biggest givers:

  • Higher levels of education
  • More religious or faith-based
  • Homeowners
  • Married
  • Live in smaller towns – not big cities
  • The study also found that people are also far more likely to donate to charitable causes when they understand and can relate to the cause or organization they’re supporting.

Additionally, studies show that women tend to increase donations when they are single, the head of the household, or when they earn higher incomes.

When it comes to income distribution, you may be surprised to hear that lower-income brackets give a larger proportion of their assets than middle or upper-class households! 

The joy of giving never diminishes

No matter who you are, how you choose to help others, or what your motivation, there is some more good news about the psychology of altruism: it doesn’t diminish.

In fact, the pleasure center in our brain typically releases fewer feel-good hormones and chemicals as a good thing becomes routine. Such is the case when we stockpile nice material things, chase superficial goals, or do things simply because society tells us it should make us happy.

So, if we purchase that expensive sports car, win at the casino, or eat delicious food, the level of pleasure we receive diminishes as time goes on – and pretty rapidly, research shows. 

However, when donating to charity, volunteering, or giving to help others in some form, the opposite is true. The pleasurable effect and mental health benefits actually do not diminish, but maintain and even grow over time. 

I guess it’s true when they say the more love you give, the more you get back!  

-Kelly Resendez



Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University 

The NonProfit Times

Philanthropy Roundtable

Science Journal

National Academy of Sciences

National Philanthropic Trust

Psychology magazine