Substantial evidence indicates that people with large social networks appear to be happier , healthier, and longer living. But the question remaining unanswered is why it should be so.
The more friends and family members you have, the more they’re going to worry for your time and money, the less you ‘re going to have for yourself. Okay, you can also make demands on the time and money of other people. Although the costs and benefits should be balanced out in the end. So what’s the benefit of being involved socially 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.
There is, however, an issue with this moralistic account of altruism. Most notably, altruism distinguishes itself from a particular human behavior. Indeed, it is commonly known in the animal world and there is growing evidence that even trees are helping one another out. Since neither trees nor tree squirrels (as far as I know) get the old-time religion, there must be an evolutionary reason for altruism.
A parenting is the most fundamental type of altruism. Since the game of life is all about living long enough to replicate and pass your genes into the next generation, any investment you make in your genetic future pays off. And because siblings and other relatives still have copies of your dna in them, when you help them out you gain a genetic advantage. (This is called selection for kinship).
But when we justify altruistic behavior against non-kin, the evolutionary rationale gets stretched thin. Vampire bats share food with hungry mates in the cave, while macaques select fleas off their fur. These friendly interactions are described in terms of mutual altruism, meaning we are favouring others with the hope that they will eventually return the favors. Your buddy did scratch your back for you, so now you’ve got to scratch theirs. It’s an equal trade, and you get what you put into it right out of the relationship. Where is the benefit, then?
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 viewpoint, it may only be that Mother Nature has come up with a way, like sex, to trick us into doing what’s right in the long run anyway. (After all, if sex didn’t feel so darn good, we wouldn’t bother. And people have it pretty simple. Just think of those poor fish that have to swim hundreds of miles upstream and escape all kinds of hazards just to satisfy their sweetheart childhood.)
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 brings us to the second direction that gives us advantage. When we-and that means both humans and animals-care for another person, we experience a drop in the cortisol stress hormone. In other words we feel a decrease in tension in our own bodies when we do positive things for others. Because stress has a detrimental effect on wellbeing, reducing stress can potentially help us live longer and happier lives through altruistic actions.
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.
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.
So we’ve got our answer to the issue of whether giving is really better than getting. Research shows that gives us advantages on two levels. Second, we must give with willingness. And second, we must assume that our act of altruism has a positive effect. When those two conditions are said, when we give, we are genuinely happier and healthier than when we receive.
And if you are blessed with the opportunity to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle (that is, if you can read this), you have the potential to offer it. The outer world can be a dark place, and those with little or little rely on the compassion and loving-kindness of people with a spirit of giving. You add to their lives by contributing to the less fortunate-and by adding to theirs you add to yours too.
Check out my related post: Why do people kiss under the Mistletoe?