Christmas is traditionally a time when we will be selecting gifts for friends and family or preparing a delicious meal to share with others. It may even be a better time of year for buskers, homeless people and charities, as people feel more generous.
What motivates people to be generous? Are some people naturally more generous than others? The University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project (Allen, S. 2018) defines generosity as ‘Prioritising the needs of others above our own,’ or ‘acts of prosocial behaviour that acts to benefit others.’
Prosocial behaviour is not limited to the human species, many animals, have shown evidence of generous behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, this is linked to survival of the species. One bird for example, the pied flycatcher undertakes risky behaviour in order to stop predators from attacking other birds.
Scientific studies consistently show that our brain circuitry, hormones and nervous system all contribute to how generous we are and how giving affects us.
A study of 37 adult volunteers showed that they reported greater vitality and self- esteem because of giving their time to volunteer for causes they cared about. Not limited to the wealthy, every person, regardless of their resources can share what they have with others in some form. Generosity can include attention, encouragement and emotional availability, not just monetary or material giving.
Some gifts cost little more than time: a hand-made card or a recycled one, a smile, a warm handshake, a “thank you for all you have done”, a bunch of wild flowers collected from the road side, some home-baked Christmas cookies, a visit, a conversation. Even smaller acts, such as taking the time to write some words that express something kind and encouraging on the gift tag may mean as much as the actual present. Even refilling the kettle with water after we use it is a generous act.
Intrinsically, acts that are prosocial, have a mesolimbic reward. In other words, when we do what makes us feel good, we repeat these helpful behaviours. As research shows, our anxiety is reduced and our happiness is increased when we are generous towards others.
Maybe the old adage is true. It is better to give than to receive.
What a great opportunity the Christmas season is, to practice openhearted generosity!