The Science of Giving

Tis the season to be frantic, fa, la, la, la, la … blah, blah, blah, blahhhhhhhh!  I doubt that you have much time to read YesFive this week so I will try to keep it short, unlike the 411 operator.  Today, I had about 10 shopping bags on my arms when the school secretary left me a message to let me know that I forgot to give my kids lunch. I wanted to call the school and tell the little ingrates to starve. Who in their right mind expects a meal the week before Christmas? Instead, I called information for the number of a local deli to deliver something … anything … to the school.  The lady on the recording, in her usual and painfully slow voice, told me not once, but twice to have a happy holiday.  Who in their right mind thought that would be a nice touch? There is no time for civility on December 20th.  There is barely enough time to take a shower.  I found myself shaking the phone in frustration, grunting through the whole recording and then giving the phone the finger. Speaking of giving … Who does it and why?

1.  Twin studies done decades ago provided very good evidence that being charitable is at least partly genetic.

2.  This year, an actual gene (COMT) was found that is affectionately called the altruistic gene. Two variations have been found, COMT-val and COMT-met, that occur in about equal proportions in the population.  If you have the COMT-val variation, you are more likely to be charitable.  If you care to remember it, it helps to think that the -met variation starts with “ME”.  Good news for selfish people … you can now use your DNA as an excuse!

3.  Giving Euphoria – when people give, a neurological pathway is activated that actually results in that warm, fuzzy feeling.

4.  Women tend to be more generous than men.  Why?  My theory is that women are either simply nicer or that we feel guilt more acutely.  Poor people tend to be more generous than rich people, giving away a greater percentage of their income.  The discrepancy is made even larger by the fact that poorer people generally don’t or can’t get the same tax benefits from their contributions.  Why are poor people more generous?  Perhaps they empathize more.  Perhaps they need less to be “happy”.  Perhaps it is genetic.  Maybe the characteristics that you need to be successful don’t mesh with a charitable attitude.

5.  Celebrities give – Oprah topped the list giving away 41.5 million this year.  If you want to see the list of the top 30 most generous celebs, click here.  There are some surprises on there.

So, why do we give? Is it to get something in return, because we are hard-wired to, because it makes us look good?  Or, is it just because it makes us feel good?  Who cares?  There is so much need, there is so much suffering.  If you are feeling blessed this year, give … just because you can.  Hey, maybe it will even get you on Santa’s Nice List.

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  • Anthony

    Karen – perfect topic for this time of year. I just want to be clear though, the only “nice list” I’m looking to be on his my wife’s list (yes your darling friend Karin the makeup superstar)!

    Giving: I’m not sure if it is genetic or not, but I’m sure there is some correlation between DNA and the ability to embrace giving in a much different capacity than the average person. However, from my standpoint what drives someone to give is the impact it has on the soul. It is the connection to a greater purpose and something more meaningful in life – small acts of kindness and giving is very much part of our own personal, continuous search for meaning.

    I read a book recently by Viktor Frankl, “A Man’s Search for Meaning”. It was really inspirational on many levels. My interpretation of the key message was that the true meaning of life is “to love and be loved”. There are substitutes that most of us succumb to as we seek out small doses of “pleasure” and “power”, but those of us who find the opportunity in our lives “to love and be loved” find true meaning.

    Yet, there are so many of us who struggle with this and spend days, months and years seeking out a true meaning in life, especially those of us crazed with work, kids, and all the other challenges that come with raising a family in 2010. So how do we get there?

    For me, I’m not so certain it is black and white. However, if we focus on giving, it provides small doses of meaning in this fast paced, chaotic world. Giving if nothing else forces us to step back, pause, and reflect on the blessings we have and those we can provide others by giving. It is truly an opportunity to impact others souls and give us all an opportunity for true meaning and purpose in life.

    One last thing, you want to see giving in action, take a look at CNN Hero, Narayanan Krishnan. http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/living/2010/04/01/cnnheroes.krishnan.profile.cnn

    Happy Holidays.
    -A

    • Yes Five

      Anthony,
      Thanks so much for taking the time and I couldn’t agree more. If we could only all spend a little more time looking outward, what a better world it would be — makes me want to break out in song. I checked out the video … truly inspiring. I think that man has the altruistic gene on steroids! Thanks again for sharing it. Maybe it will inspire some New Year resolutions that don’t have to do with weight loss.
      Merry Christmas!
      KL