On Christmas Day across America, millions of families will gather together to celebrate one of the seminal holy days of the Christian calendar. An important element of that celebration is the exchange of gifts and other expressions of generosity toward our family, friends, neighbors and many beyond our immediate circle who are less fortunate. Giving thanks through the act of giving lies at the heart of our understanding of Christmas.
But far beyond this specific occasional expression of giving, it turns out that human brains are hard-wired to be generous, and that doing so is actually good for us. Giving feels good because we are literally created to do it.
For Christians on this day, gifting recalls the ancient story of the three Magi bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus in an expression of thankfulness that reinforces our calling to live generously all year. But the instinctual need for us to give is as old as mankind itself and nearly universal across faiths. In Jewish tradition, charity or "tzedakah" is considered a mitzvah or commandment, one of the central obligations of the faith. Interestingly, the word translated "charity" in English literally means "justice" or "righteousness" in Hebrew.
For Muslims, almsgiving or "zakat" is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires that followers dedicate a fixed portion of their income to support others in need. The Quran instructs the faithful to "be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity". Similar injunctions to giving occur in most other religions.
Yet while our various faiths instruct us to practice generosity, it may be that these religious precepts merely codify a genetically prescribed impulse that we as human beings are inherently programmed to practice. Science is discovering evidence that we are born to be givers.
Classical economic theory assumes that all people are relentlessly rational actors seeking to maximize their own welfare; "homo economicus" or Economic Man always works to maximize profits and minimize losses, a predilection that would presumably exclude giving to charity as being irrational. Researchers have long pondered the apparent contradiction evidenced by the real generosity in which actual humans routinely engage. New tools including functional MRI scanning allow these scientists to observe the response of the individual circuits in the brain that control particular responses like nurturing social behavior and stimulation of neural rewards. Results have consistently shown that we are made to be generous.
Scientists have demonstrated that acts of charity stimulate the parts of the brain that secrete certain chemicals associated with pleasure like serotonin and dopamine. Engaging in acts of kindness switch on the "feel-good" mechanism of the brain and create a sense of happiness and satisfaction that reinforces this behavior and encourages us to do it again.
In one of the largest academic studies, the Science of Generosity Project at the University of Notre Dame published their findings in a book called "The Paradox of Generosity". According to their work, people who donate significant portions of their income have a materially lower incidence of depression, while those who donate time and effort are measurably healthier. Numerous other studies have likewise found that regular givers live longer, are generally happier and have deeper social attachments, suggesting that not only are we programmed for generosity but that we get paid for it as well. What could be better?
These findings are good news indeed for all but the economists who must go back to the drawing board to explain how we imperfect, irrational humans just can't resist our compulsion to give.
A very Merry Christmas and best wishes for a wonderful Holiday Season to all.
Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA, is a vice president and portfolio manager for Barnett & Co. Investment Counsel in Chattanooga