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The “Helper’s High” – What Happens to Your Brain and Body When You Give a Gift

Giving is a reward unto itself. Discover how gifting comes with its own benefits.

Everybody knows that familiar feeling once you give a gift.

Your heart seems lighter, and you may feel a boost of energy when you see someone enjoying their present.

A woman named Althea described it perfectly:

“Giving the perfect gift is like a gift unto itself. I like the feeling that I got it right and that I did it for somebody that I love or value.”

It just feels really good, right?

Despite those positive feelings that pop up when you give a gift, you probably don’t know what exactly happens on a more scientific level. 

Did you know that generosity has some interesting effects on the brain and body?

Some people refer to these effects as a “helper’s high”, and there’s some very real science behind those feel-good benefits. This article will examine several of them.

The Effects

The rush of giving the perfect gift isn’t just about the satisfaction of a job “done right.” Take a look at what happens to your body when you give a gift:

#1 – A Boost of Oxytocin

You might be familiar with that “love hormone” known as oxytocin. When a dose of oxytocin hits your system, you get those warm and fuzzy feelings. That hormone makes you feel good when you’re with a loved one.

And when you give gifts?

If you’ve ever experienced giddy feelings when you give the right gift, guess what? Your brain pumps out that same bonding chemical that women experience after childbirth.

The brain and your emotions work together to pump out this love hormone. As a result, you may feel closer to the recipient as a result of that oxytocin boost.

Here’s a great story for you:

Sarah loves giving gifts to other people. She does it because she enjoys seeing other people happy. And if she can give others a brief moment of happiness, she’s happy too.

One time while working as a vendor at a farmer’s market, she noticed a little girl returning to a stand next to hers. She kept cuddling a crocheted plush horse. Each time, she held it before putting it back and wandering away.

Sarah overheard the little girl asking her parents for the toy, but they said that they couldn’t afford it. She wanted to help the girl, but she thought the toy was out of her price range as well.

But at another time when the girl came over to hug the toy, the price tag flashed in her direction. To Sarah’s surprise, the toy was more affordable than she thought. She glanced at her husband and saw that he noticed the price tag, too.

He just nodded his approval.

The next time the girl went to the vendor stand, Sarah walked over and gave her the money. She told the girl to buy the toy with it.

What compelled Sarah to buy a toy for a stranger?

She admitted that she didn’t really have money to spare and likely would have to make sacrifices to accommodate the toy. 

However, she said the smile that lit the girl’s face when she saw her for the rest of the day was worth it.

#2 – Improved Empathy

Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? For instance, can you feel or understand what another person experiences? 

You can, if you give gifts.

Empathy is one step up from compassion when you want to make connections with another living being. Where compassion lets you feel something for the situation from the outside in, empathy places you in the driver’s seat.

When you feel empathy, you experience what another person does. Not only that, but you also do it within their frame of reference and not your own. This can give you a greater understanding of where the other person is coming from.

Empathy and the capacity to feel it are woven into the brain structures. They’re there to help you see things from another person’s perspective.

Giving gifts also has the added benefit of inspiring recipients to give gifts as well.

Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia teamed up for a study related to it. Ultimately, they found that the happiness from gifts is contagious. Researchers also found that people who received an unexpected windfall of money were likely to use it on another gift.

Why? When you feel happy, you want to extend those feelings and make those around you feel it, too.

#3 – Generosity of Spirit Leads to a Longer Life

Is generosity the secret fountain of youth?

A study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that generosity may help you live longer. Researchers studied people 55 years and older who volunteered their time to two or more organizations. The data reflected that those who volunteered were 44% less likely to die over the next five years.

You may wonder if lifestyle affects that projection, but researchers accounted for those factors. Giving your time generously may extend your life, regardless of your age or general health.

#4 – The Happiness Trifecta

The Happiness Trifecta are three hormones that affect your mood, and these are: oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.

If you recall, oxytocin is that “bonding” chemical that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. It makes you feel closer to others, which is why it’s also sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.”

Serotonin is the happy chemical that courses throughout your body. It contributes to general feelings of happiness and well-being. That’s why when people experience a shortage of serotonin in their body, they may feel depressed or experience low energy.

Dopamine is another “feel good” chemical in the brain. It interacts with the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. It can also affect memory, movement, and focus.

So, how does gift-giving affect the trifecta?

It starts with the act of helping others or gifting someone with something. It can be a physical present or the gift of your time - either can have the same effect.

The act of helping others sends a message to the brain to release oxytocin. This chemical courses through your body and boosts your mood. It has the added effect of counteracting the stress hormone called cortisol.

As the warm and fuzzy feelings course through your body, you feel an instinctual need to prolong the feeling. When your oxytocin levels increase, so does that need to keep helping other people.

When your body has a surge in oxytocin, it also increases serotonin and dopamine levels. Givers feel euphoria and well-being as a benefit from all three chemicals in the body at once.

#5 – Activation of the Subgenual Areas of the Brain

There’s another biological benefit with giving: 

It may help people enjoy the company of others just a little bit more.

That’s because gift-giving triggers the subgenual areas of the brain. These subgenual areas, or Brodmann area 25, refer to a space in the cerebral cortex where many serotonin transporters reside. This area also influences other behaviors like:

  • Appetite
  • Sleep
  • Mood and anxiety
  • Memory formation
  • Self-esteem

For gift-givers, though, those serotonin transporters are key to feeling good about giving. This particular area of the brain is responsible for releasing happy hormones into the body.

When you get that dose of the happy hormone, it may help boost your enjoyment in social interactions. Or even make you like someone more than you already do. That’s because you’ll associate that happy feeling with the interaction.

Reap the Benefits of Gift-Giving

There’s a lot of focus on buying the perfect gift for someone. And usually, a lot of stress is involved with finding the perfect item.

It doesn’t always have to be that way, though.

Many people often overlook the benefits that you get from giving a gift in the first place. Not only can it improve your mood and outlook, but it may also improve your longevity.

The next time you pick out a gift, remember its benefits. Not only are you putting a smile on the recipient’s face, but you’re also putting a smile on your own.

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