When It Comes To Your Brain, What Gives?
If someone gave you a check and two options — keep the money for yourself or spend it on someone else — what would you do?
A study published in Science did just that. What they found suggests that money actually can buy happiness — when it’s spent on other people.
The brain has a complex relationship with giving and receiving. Some experts say that humans are hardwired to give, even when it’s logically and economically unwise. So, when it comes to gifting, is it really the thought that counts?
Wrapping your brain around giving
Get inside your head to find out the breakdown of your basic anatomy that makes giving (and receiving) feel so good.
Drag right to unpack your brain
Swipe right to unpack your brain
It’s Not How Much We Give, Just How We Give It
“Receiving gifts and favors can be lovely, but there is also a potent and irreplaceable joy in giving that most people need to express,” says Karl Zinsmeister in his book, The Almanac of American Philanthropy.
What Kind of Giver Are You
Edit each of the boxes to select the answer that best describes you.
I prefer to buy make choose gifts. I like to give something that my friends/family need want need. It’s more enjoyable if I give them a physical gift money time an experience a physical gift. I can can't can plan ahead for my gifts because it’s stressful exciting stressful. If it’s for a good cause, I’d rather give my money time money.Get Results
Survival of the Givers
Popular theorists like E.O. Wilson believed that altruism was programmed into species to help them survive. Though Wilson later went back on his theory, he came to the conclusion that altruism "evolved for the sake of the community."
Sharing — whether it’s in the form of a material gift, or a kind gesture — benefits us all.
The Evolution of Giving
Confucian China: Giving as Relationship-Building
Confucian principles influenced how Chinese gave in the community. Gifting not only established relationships, it bound people together and helped create social harmony. The entire community contributed to the livelihood of the individual, who in return maintained a sense of obligation and loyalty to the group.
With rigidly defined social roles, gift-giving was crucial in forming and maintaining social hierarchy.
Ancient Egypt: Giving in Preparation for the Afterlife
For ancient Egyptians, giving had little to do with material gifts amongst one another — but with symbolic gifts for the gods. To ensure immortality after death, they performed elaborate rituals to prepare the dead for their journey to the afterworld.
Mummification allowed one’s soul to return to the body after death. People also left food, drink, written funerary texts, and other household items — even mummified pets — outside tombs to aid the deceased in their journey to immortality.
Ancient Rome: Giving as Civic Responsibility Introducing Christianity: The Evolution of Philanthropy
Though philanthropy has Greek roots, ancient Romans also believed giving was a civic responsibility. In other words, giving was an obligation of noble status, rather than out of human necessity or generosity. Giving meant nobles received communal recognition and public influence in return.
When Christianity rose to power in the Greco-Roman empire, its leaders preached all-encompassing love. This influenced how they viewed philanthropy, which evolved from being the elite’s obligation to the common man’s purpose.
Ancient Greece: Giving for Survival and Hospitality
Though philanthropy has Greek roots, ancient Romans also believed giving was a civic responsibility. In other words, giving was an obligation of noble status, rather than out of human necessity or generosity. Giving meant nobles received communal recognition and public influence in return. When Christianity rose to power in the Greco-Roman empire, its leaders preached all-encompassing love. This influenced how they viewed philanthropy, which evolved from being the elite’s obligation to the common man’s purpose.
Middle Ages: Giving to Form Alliances
Gift giving was inherently political, economical, and spiritual in medieval life. Illuminated manuscripts depicted the culture around giving, and were gifted to establish and reinforce political and social relationships among the elite. Scenes portray daily medieval life, ranging from wealthy individuals donating to charity or presenting manuscripts to royal patrons. Manuscripts were often given to churches or monasteries and within families.
Native Americans: Giving For Sharing and Survival
Historically, Native people found solace and strength in giving, using it as a means for sharing, survival, and relationship-building. They believed in communal wealth distribution and finding prosperity in spiritual and natural forces.
Tribal leaders are still crucial in forming philanthropy in Native communities. The Potlatch ritual celebrates generosity by giving away wealth among other tribal members in the community.
Present Day: Giving Around the Globe
Giving is no longer bound by physical and cultural borders. Today, people are able to pledge money to support or encourage people they’ve never even met.
The internet brought on a wave of modern technology that has allowed giving to go truly global. With crowdfunding apps like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, we can share stories, tragedies, goals, and dreams with the click of a button. As a global community, we’ve long found support through family and friends, but we now find power in the solidarity of strangers, too.
When it comes to gifting, it truly is the thought that counts. Whether you’re giving the gift of tradition, time, adventure, or experience, it’s the connection between the giver and receiver that’s the real magic of being human.
- Ancient History Encyclopedia, Confucius, November 2012
- British Library, Illuminated Manuscripts, Curators Introduction
- British Library, Timelines: Sources from History
- Bryn Mawr, Brain Structures and Their Functions
- Canadian Museum of History, Mysteries of Egypt: Life and Death
- X Global China Center, Influence of Confucian Values on the Practice of Gift Exchange in Contemporary China, November 2014
- Healthline, Body Maps, March 2015
- Huffington Post, Giving Helps the Giver Too, March 2017
- Interpro, Best Practices for Gift Giving in China
- XXLearning to Give, Native American Culture of Giving
- Medievalists, Gift Giving in the Middle Ages, December 2014
- Minerva Union, The Value of Hospitality
- Nature Communications, A Neural Link Between Generosity and Happiness, July 2017
- NCBI, The Functional Neuroanatomy of Pleasure and Happiness, December 2010
- NCBI, How Does the Brain Work
- NCBI, Parietal Lobe
- NPR, Study: Spending Money on Others Makes Us Happy, March 2008
- Philanthrocapitalism, Ancient Giving, 2013
- Philanthropy, The Wisdom of the Giveaway: A Guide to Native American Philanthropy
- Psych Central, Doing for Others Also Benefits Health of Altruistic
- Psychology Today, Darwin’s Touch: The Survival of the Kindest, February 2009
- Psychology Today, The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism, December 2012
- Psychology Today, The Neuroscience of Giving, April 2014
- Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward–Related Neural Activity, May 2016
- SC Department of Archives & History, Native American Time Periods for South Carolina
- ScienceDirect, Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, September 2016
- Spinal Cord, Lobes of the Brain, 2017
- Serendip Studio, Brain Structures and Their Functions, February 2012
- Smithsonian, Ancient Egypt: Egyptian Mummies
- The Balance, What is Crowdfunding?, February 2017
- The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1950
- The New York Times, Ancient Egyptian Animals Had a Place in the Afterlife. Here’s Why., October 2017
- The Wall Street Journal, Hard-Wired for Giving, August 2013