Abundant research shows that people who have strong social networks tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. But the question that remains unanswered is why this should be the case.

The more friends and family members you have, the more they’ll make demands on your time and resources, and so the less you’ll have for yourself. Granted, you can also make demands on other people’s time and resources. But in the end the costs and benefits should even out. So what’s the advantage of being socially engaged over going it alone?

Psychologists use the term altruism to refer to the act of giving to another at an expense to yourself. It could be that we engage in altruistic acts simply because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. After all, altruism is a basic tenet of religious teaching.

However, there’s a problem with this moralistic account of altruism. Most importantly, altruism is far from a uniquely human behavior. Indeed, it’s observed widely throughout the animal world, and there’s growing evidence that even trees help each other out (Frazier, 2015). Since neither trees nor tree squirrels get that old time religion (as far as I know), there must be an evolutionary explanation for altruism.

The most basic form of altruism is parenting. Since the game of life is all about surviving long enough to reproduce and get your genes into the next generation, any sacrifice you make for your kiddies pays off in your genetic future. And since siblings and other relatives also have copies of your genes in them, you gain a genetic advantage when you help them out. (This is called kinship selection.)

But the evolutionary reasoning gets stretched thin when we explain altruistic acts toward non-kin. Vampire bats share food with hungry cave mates, while macaques pick fleas from each other’s fur. These friendly exchanges are explained in terms of reciprocal altruism, meaning that we do favors for others with the expectation that they’ll return the favors later. Sure, your friend scratched your back for you, but now you have to scratch theirs. It’s an even exchange, and you only get out of the relationship what you put into it. So where’s the advantage?

It could be that we’re not adding up the costs and benefits of altruism correctly. At least, that’s what University of Pittsburgh psychologists Tristen Inagaki and Edward Orehek propose. In a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, these researchers maintain that individuals actually gain benefits when they provide social support to others. In other words, when you help a friend, you reap more than you sow.

The benefits of giving come in two forms. The first is that giving support is rewarding in and of itself. When we give to others, whether as parents, kin, or friends, we experience a surge in the “feel good” hormone dopamine. This is the same hormone associated with the pleasure of sex or good food. And this is true both for human and non-human animals alike.

Research looking at the reward-related aspects of giving reveal some interesting findings. For example, giving to others leads to an increase in self-esteem and self-worth. That is, after making your generous donation, you really do feel better about yourself.

From an evolutionary perspective, it could just be that Mother Nature has come up with a way to trick us into doing what’s good in the long term anyway, just like sex. (After all, if sex didn’t feel so damned good, we wouldn’t bother. And humans have it relatively easy. Just think of those poor salmon who have to swim hundreds of miles upstream and evade all sorts of dangers just to mate with their childhood sweetheart.)

But even if it’s just a trick, it’s really quite good. For example, one study found that giving money to a charity actually led to the release of more feel-good dopamine than did winning the same amount of money in a lottery! So clearly, lending a helping hand feels good. But does it actually do us any good?

This question gets us to the second way that giving benefits us. When we—and that means both humans and animals—give care to another, we experience a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, when we do good things for others, we experience a reduction of stress in our own bodies. Since stress has a negative impact on health, reducing stress through altruistic acts can actually help us live longer and healthier lives.

However, Inagaki and Orehek point out that there’s a limit to how much we can give before it starts having a negative impact. In particular, they found that there are two “boundary conditions” to self-beneficial altruism. First, you have to give willingly. Donating $20 to Red Cross to aid flood victims will make you feel good and reduce your stress. But you get no such benefit when your boss strong-arms you into giving $20 to his favorite charity.

The other boundary condition is that you perceive the support you give as having a positive effect. When you help your kids with their homework, and as a result they do better in school, you feel your efforts are worthwhile and you accrue the benefits of pleasure and reduced stress. Messages such as “Thanks to you, it’s working” may have a similar effect.

But when you give because you feel obligated, and furthermore you sense that what you’re giving is ineffective, the opposite outcome occurs. You feel depressed, and your stress levels go through the roof.

Inagaki and Orehek give the example of a middle-aged adult caring for a terminally ill parent. Instead of devoting your time to your career, which people your age usually do, you instead assume the care of your parent out of a sense of responsibility. (No dopamine surges for doing your duty.)

Furthermore, no matter how much devoted care you give your dying parent, their condition continues to worsen, until the inevitable happens. Seeing the one you love waste away is stress-provoking anyway. And that stress is not relieved by knowing that you were with them during their final days.

In summary, then, we have our answer to question of whether giving really is better than receiving. Research shows that giving benefits us under two conditions. First, we have to give willingly. And second, we have to believe our act of altruism will have a positive impact. When these two conditions are meant, we truly are happier and healthier when we give than when we receive.

References

Inagaki, T. K. & Orehek, E. (2017). On the benefits of giving social support: When, why, and how support providers gain by caring for others. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 109-113.

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