It’s official: giving is good for you. A number of recent studies have shown that giving to good causes works on our brain chemistry to make us happier. And since South Africans are a giving nation – giving roughly R12 billion a year to help others – we must all be a very happy bunch. Right?
According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of 30,000 American households, people who gave money to charity were 43% more likely than non-givers to say they were “very happy” about their lives. And people who volunteered were 42% more likely to be very happy than non-volunteers.
It seems that giving combats depression too. A University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics revealed that people who gave money away were 34% less likely than non-givers to say that they had felt “so sad that nothing could cheer them up” in the past month. They were also 68% less likely to have felt “hopeless”.
Recently, scientists have been looking at exactly why giving makes people happy. Their conclusion is that giving affects brain chemistry – charitable
activity releases a rush of endorphins, the body’s ‘feel good’ hormones.
Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, looked into the brains of 19 volunteers who were choosing whether to give money to charity or keep it for themselves. Using magnetic resonance imaging, which maps the activity of different sections of the brain, researchers found that the part of the brain that was active during
this experiment was the mesolimbic pathway. This is the “reward center” of the brain that provides the euphoria associated with sex or eating good food. In other words, making a financial contribution to a nonprofit triggered the brain’s pleasure centre
A nation of givers
An HSRC national survey on social giving in South Africa found that regular citizens give roughly R12 billion a year from their own pockets to help others. This is a staggering amount compared to corporate giving which contributed an estimated R5 billion.
Over half of survey respondents (54%) gave money, a third (31%) gave goods and 17% volunteered their time to causes. Interestingly, poor and non-poor respondents were equally likely to have given to causes. They may not give as much but poor households give more often and give significantly more of their time. As the report says, “Giving is not the domain of the wealthy; it is part of everyday life for all South Africans”.
The problem of choice
If giving makes you happy and we are a giving nation, then why don’t we all feel happier?
South Africa is an upper-middle-income country in per capita terms. Despite this relative wealth, the distribution of income and wealth in South Africa is among the most unequal in the world. And regardless of the figures from the HSRC survey, the culture of giving formally and regularly to causes is not particularly well-established. Often people feel powerless in the face of what they see as such overwhelming need.
Crucially, though, is the problem of choice for the giver – not so much whether to give but who to give to, what to give and how. Many South Africans worry about whether their support will go to those who really need it. And will it actually make a difference?
Our task as civil society is to help make these choices easier and more transparent for the giving public. So that they can give meaningfully and regularly and get the endorphin rush they deserve.
Visit www.greatergoodsa.co.za and find out how you can give goods, time, money or even reward points to over 1,000 good causes quickly and easily online and become a more happier you!