The psychology of giving: Why doing good makes us feel good
by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star
Dec 24, 2011 | 5249 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
David Zeigler talks with Shannon Cooper. Zeigler has been a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for more than ten years. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
David Zeigler talks with Shannon Cooper. Zeigler has been a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for more than ten years. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
During Brooke Murphy’s 12th birthday party on the first Saturday in December, it was the box that got the most attention.

It was a gift of a most unusual kind. It didn’t contain a new American Girl doll, fancy clothes, make-up or video games. In fact, there were no presents at all.

For her birthday, the Jacksonville girl decided to give, rather than to receive. The box sitting on the table was decorated with colored ribbons, each symbolizing a form of cancer that attacked her family: pink for the breast cancer that killed her grandmother, blue for the prostate cancer that her grandfather has, gold for the childhood cancer and teal for the cervical cancer that both of her aunts have battled. Beneath the ribbons was a single word: “Donations.”

This year, Brooke realized there wasn’t really anything she needed for her birthday. Instead, she asked friends and family to give money that would go to the American Cancer Society. In one day, she raised $500.

The idea was born when Brooke and her mother, Deanna Murphy, attended an auction in October to raise money for breast cancer. “She did this all on her own. I didn’t have to push her at all. I’m just so proud,” said Deanna Murphy.

“It just felt like the right thing to do.” said Brooke. “It felt good knowing that I was helping people.”

Such generous impulses can be difficult to explain.

Ask someone why they dropped a dollar into the Salvation Army’s red bucket on their way into Wal-Mart, and they’ll likely just shrug their shoulders.

Ask someone why they decided to spend their lunch hour donating blood to the Red Cross rather than in a drive-thru, they’ll likely say something along the lines of, “just wanted to do something to help.”

Ask someone why they spent a whole Saturday collecting canned goods for a food pantry, they’ll likely just stare at you as if the gesture speaks for itself.

The truth is that being charitable — whether it’s donating time, money or effort — simply feels good.

“We give to sustain our own survival,” said Anniston psychiatrist Glenn Archibald. “Studies show when we give, we feel better, and so do those we give to.”

Yet according to recent research, giving comes not from the heart, as Hallmark cards often imply, but rather from the head. Or, more specifically, the brain.

Research by Paul Zak, founder of Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Neuroeconomics, has focused on oxytocin, a hormone released during childbirth and as people bond.

Parts of the brain, including the amygdala and subgenual cortex, have receptors that are activated by oxytocin. The subgenual cortex makes people feel good when they are doing something positive, such as giving. The amygdala controls feelings of safety and fear.

“We’re not going to spray oxytocin in the air,” Zak said. “But increased happiness is a benefit to people who give, and we all want to be around generous people.”

In 2009, Notre Dame University founded the Science of Generosity Initiative in an effort to unlock the mysteries of giving. The initiative has combined research into economics, sociology, neurology and psychology in an effort to understand why generosity makes us feel good, and how that biological reaction can be harnessed.

Think of it as that “warm glow,” or the “helper’s high.” Scientists have long known that the brain responds to certain philanthropic behaviors by releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine. Simply put, helping someone makes us feel good.

Researcher Omri Gillath is trying to decipher if “attachment security” — an internal sense of love and self-worth — is one cause of generosity. This personality trait is formed in childhood when we seek caregivers, namely mothers, to take care of us.

“No one has found the generosity gene,” Gillath recently told USA Today. “There is something very important in the actual decision-making process that we don’t understand yet.”

However, Marti Reuter, a professor at the University of Bonn, published a paper in 2010 that appears to identify a gene that separates generous people from stingy ones.

Human beings are born with two versions of most of our genes — one from each parent. According to Reuter, those who are most charitable generally have a positive outlook on the world — as well as two copies of a particular gene variant called COMT-Val. Those with one copy of a related gene, COMT-Met, are less likely to be charitable, and more likely to have a negative view of life. People with one of each of these genes lie somewhere in the middle.

David Zeigler of Anniston can’t say that he was born a philanthropist, but he’s dedicated most of his life to improving the lives of others.

Zeigler gave 20 years to his country in the United States Army, before retiring as a major. In 1997, he joined Calhoun County Habitat for Humanity, where he helped build houses for the needy, the disenfranchised and single mothers dreaming of a second chance for their families.

“I just like helping people,” he said. “There’s no great mystery to it.”

Zeigler was board president of Calhoun County Habitat in 2003, when President Jimmy Carter and hundreds of Habitat volunteers descended upon Wellborn Manor to build 36 homes over one blistering summer as part of the Jimmy Carter Work Project.

To this day, Zeigler feels a warm glow whenever he drives past homes he had a hand in building, knowing he helped change people’s lives for the better.

While Zeigler’s brain may have played a part in his lifetime of giving, it was answering a personal calling that gave it a deeper meaning.

“I’m a Christian, and Christ wants us to give to our fellow man,” Zeigler said. “And that’s what God has put in my heart to do.”

Contact Brett Bucker at

The science of generosity

• There are different kinds of giving. People give for strategic, altruistic, sentimental, impulsive, habitual or ideological reasons.

• People who are religious tend to give more.

• People who have more money don’t necessarily donate more. The opposite is often true.

• Generosity is good for you. Senior citizens who volunteer live longer.

• Holiday giving often is strategic and motivated more by year-end tax deductions than the sentiments of the season.

• People who plan donations give more than those who don’t.

• Guilt isn’t a great motivator.

— SOURCE: Science of Generosity Initiative
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The psychology of giving: Why doing good makes us feel good by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star

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