How giving makes us feel good: a psychotherapist explains
No one does anything for nothing’ someone said to me recently. ‘That's simply not true’ I thought.
People do things for nothing all the time, through unselfish concern for others. Everyday life is filled with small altruistic actions, from holding the door open for someone else to giving change to a homeless man.
There are much larger acts of altruism as well, like the case of an elderly grandmother who threw herself in front of a car to protect her three tiny granddaughters from a vehicle that was careering out of control towards them.
And what about the man who jumped into an icy river to rescue a drowning dog, the generous donor who gives thousands of pounds to charity or the woman who donated a kidney to a total stranger ?
The subject of altruism has been close to my heart of late.
Sometimes your personal life and professional life overlap in spectacular fashion, like a strange Venn diagram, where the middle ground feels exciting yet a bit anxious too. Recently I have found myself at the heart of a campaign to try and save our village pub from being turned into another project for developers.
The Queens Head has served our community for the best part of 300 years. It's been the hub of the village as long as I can remember and certainly since I moved next door to it over 32 years ago.
These days, I have a special kind of bond with the old place but we got off to a rocky start when I first moved in. Beset by postnatal depression I focused all my negative feelings onto The Queens Head. It was something I wrote about in an article published by Tiny Buddha. In fact, I often wished the pub wasn't there at all.
So when it was put on the market recently, I was surprised that the surge of emotion I felt which fuelled an intense motivation to try and save the pub, not necessarily for me who goes to it less frequently than many, but for the benefit of the community as a whole.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I understand the significance of community; that sense of belonging that comes from connecting with something bigger than yourself. Others are obviously feeling it too, because once the ‘for sale’ sign went up, the residents of our tiny hamlet pooled their resources and managed to stump up £150,000 to try and buy it. The brewery turned us down, which is when we started to look more closely at a growing social phenomenon called ‘crowd funding.’
A dying village
Like many rural communities, Tebworth has lost so much.
Fifty years ago, Anglia TV made a programme called ‘A Dying Village’ about a community losing its resources and traditional lifestyle. That documentary was about Tebworth. Yet since it was made, we have lost so much more, like our post office, shop and our little school. Never the less, community spirit stayed strong, largely because the pub is the hub of the village where friends and neighbours can get together.
And the pub itself has been a focus for altruistic giving for a long time, from raising money to help run it through beer festivals at the village hall, collecting for the annual fireworks display and bringing food to share with others at the folk night, when the musicians play for nothing as well.
In fact, we are surrounded by the constant little acts of generosity that say so much about what it is to be human and that give a real sense of belonging; something the psychologists call ‘pro social behaviour.’
Wired for generosity
There’s no doubt that altruism lights up the reward centres of the brain, giving substance to those well known sayings, ‘it’s better to give than to receive’ and ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ and one I regularly use with my own clients ‘While you are waiting for the depression to lift, what can you be doing to help others?’
As a professional, I know that giving, sharing and getting involved improve emotional health and wellbeing.
As it turns out, altruism provides its own reward.