Sharing is more than caring, it's the key to something bigger...
The Holidays are upon us. It is the season of giving and receiving gifts. Do you ever wonder why we continue to give gifts? Why do we spend our money and time on others? Is it because it is socially expected or are we driven by some other reason? Let me explain to you why we love to receive and give gifts, and how it changes the very wiring of your brain. The neuroscience of altruism.
Your teenage brain is glorious - if you didn’t know that already. Neuroscience has shown that the brain goes through critical periods of growth and development - while in the womb, the first year of life, and the early years, right into adulthood. What scientists have more recently discovered is that the brain undergoes a 'secret mission' of change during the period between the ages of 12 to 19 years that is truly unique.
As you may already know humans are wired for survival - think of the inbuilt desire to pass our genetic code onto the next generation. As such, you may be wondering: 'why do we do anything for others when our genes are focused on their own survival?' Well, research suggests that altruism is the ultimate act of the selfish gene - we increase our chances of surviving or ensuring survival of our offspring, by collaborating and caring for others. In other words, it is in the best interests of genes to be altruistic, and some researchers argue this is the reason why altruism has remained throughout human evolution.
The recent developments in imaging techniques using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shed new light on the role of altruism and the brain. The neuroscience of altruism - or the scientific study of the brain changes associated with doing or giving to another, without the intention of getting a reward or gift in return, has some interesting insight to give.
Neuroscience is informing us, that the act of altruism is good for the brain in a multitude of ways. Altruism activates the mesolimbic system - a structure deep in the brain commonly referred to as the reward pathway, and driven by the brain's fantastic four - dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin - the prime drivers to feelings of happiness.
The impact of happiness as a byproduct of altruistic actions permeates many aspects of your life. Happy people live longer, are healthier, and feel less physical pain. The mesolimbic systems' hormones, function as a counter weight to the body's release of cortisol. As you may remember the hormone cortisol is associated with stress and anxiety. The relationship between stress and the immune system is well documented - in other words a person that is under stress, is more likely to become immuno-suppressed, and more prone to becoming sick.
The secondary benefit of altruistic actions, is that it increases your self-esteem, and your sense of belonging (powered by oxytocin - the love hormone, and one of the fantastic four). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - the gold standard measure of happiness informs how to achieve happiness. After the initial desire for safety, the meeting of our immediate physical needs, a sense of belonging, the final step is self-esteem - essential to our level of happiness. By giving of yourself to others, your life feels more meaningful, and you feel happier as a consequence.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
You are a creature of habit - and as such the more you do something the more it feels 'like you'; and the more you feel like doing it. This self-perpetuating approach to behavior applies to altruistic actions too - the more you do for others, the more you feel like doing it.
Still wondering if you should give to others? Research indicates the impact of not doing or giving to others, leads to a negative mindset, and subsequent unhappiness. Negativity breeds negativity, inaction leads to more inaction - you get the idea. The impact of not being altruistic over time is that of lowering your self-esteem, further adding to a feeling of unhappiness. Low self-esteem leads to actions, and decisions that typically will have a negative impact on your life.
If you do good, you feel good, and when you feel good; you do good. Get it? It’s a seesaw of action and reaction. So, if you are in a cycle of not doing for others, change it; and look for the changes. Life without sharing is meaningless. You are human because you want and need to connect with another.
Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.
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