November 22, 2017 Katelyn O'Neil

The Science of Giving and Gratitude

Gratitude changes everything - handwriting on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee

By: Natalie Wallace

“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.” — Horace Mann. This quote evokes the value and power of giving to others, or any acts of kindness towards others. This includes simple things such as giving someone a compliment, paying for someone’s coffee, or volunteering some of your time to a non profit organization. The quote above also elicits a sense of greater good. The notion and reciprocation that life is much more than personal well being, extending out past the self and into the collective world, but that the self is no less important than the whole. The health of the greater good relies on the many “selves” to give to other individuals. This gift could be anything from time, money or simply benevolence.

So why is doing for others so beneficial? When you give to another person there is a physiological response that occurs in the body. Research shows that the pleasure center of the brain is flooded with the same feel-good endorphins that are released during a long run (think runner’s high). The hormone called oxytocin is also released when you give to someone else, the same hormone released during sex, which lowers your stress levels and deepens your connection to others. The effects of this release can last for up to two hours and include being more generous and feeling more empathy towards others. This exact effect is why a single act of giving or of kindness can spark a domino effect. The feelings one experiences from the receiving end often inspire them to pay it forward, and the beautiful cycle continues.

Being generous actually improves quality of life (and possibly even length of life). In a 2013 UnitedHealth Group survey of people who volunteered, 76 percent felt physically healthier, 94 percent said volunteering improves their mood, and 78 percent felt less stressed. In fact, research demonstrates that people who provided constructive help to friends, family or neighbors, or emotionally supported their spouse, had a decreased risk of dying over a five year period compared to those who did not. In terms of benefiting the whole, acts of benevolence create feelings of gratitude and appreciation in those on the receiving end of things. Smiling at a stranger just became a whole lot more influential, right?

There are two key components to gratitude, according to Robert Emmons, one of the leading experts on gratitude. The first part is the affirmation of goodness — the recognition of the truth that there are good things happening out there in the world in the form of help, gifts, love, etc. It’s kind of like the restoration of one’s “faith in humanity.” The second part of gratitude is understanding where the goodness is emanating from. It has to have come from something outside of yourself, whether it be another human or a higher power (if you’re a spiritual person). It’s from this realm, that we receive small gifts, larger gifts, benefits of any kind really, that keep us humble and allow us to experience and attain goodness in our lives.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has studied gratitude and its effects on people’s bodies, minds and relationships. To be more exact, they have studied over 1000 people ages eight to 80, and they discovered that those who regularly practiced gratitude claim a plethora of physical, psychological and social benefits. For example, they reported having stronger immune systems; being less bothered by aches and pains; sleeping longer and feeling more refreshed upon waking; having lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotion; feeling more alert, alive and awake; experiencing more joy, happiness, optimism, and pleasure; being more passionate, generous, forgiving and outgoing; and feeling less lonely and isolated.

So how can you cultivate gratitude in your life? Emmons would suggest you keep a “gratitude journal.” He has spent over a decade studying the science of gratitude and has found journaling to be a very practical and effective way of creating more gratitude in people’s lives. A gratitude journal is simply a place where you consistently write down the things you’re grateful for. Try it for three weeks and see how it goes. Sounds pretty simple, yet the results are literally life changing. This holiday season, keep a gratitude journal of your own and record what you have to be thankful for. You might be surprised how it improves the way you feel and act towards others, and that in turn, will inspire others to act and feel better too.