Liz’s Life: The joy of generosity

Liz shares a personal insight into her life in her regular column in Liz Earle Wellbeing Magazine. In this edition, Liz discusses the joy that we can find in giving. She also explains why we’re hardwired to be attracted to generosity.

Liz writes…

We’re often told that it’s better to give than receive and there’s certainly much truth in this.

There are tangible physical and mental health benefits attached to generosity. Being generous to others reduces our stress load, reinforces our sense of purpose and lifts depression naturally. Research also shows that it adds years to our lifespan. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the keys to a happy, healthy life.

Not only do we physically feel better, our self-esteem is given a boost when we shift our focus to what is around us and not what is within us. Personally, I’ve found it also quietens that nagging inner critic that too often tells me I’m unworthy. It’s harder for an internal voice to talk me down when I’m doing something appreciated by others. It’s not about money or things either. I’ve found that a willingness to give others something that has value – not necessarily financial, but something of worth, such as time, commitment, thought or energy – brings just as much benefit, or even more. Although I knew this, I was genuinely suprised by just how much sheer pleasure I got (and continue to experience) from founding my charity LiveTwice. This exists to help others by bringing opportunity and support to disadvantaged communities.

The impact of generosity on our brains

Neuroscientists have found that even small acts of generous behaviour makes our brains light up with positive energy. Brain imaging data using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that those who act solely out of self-interest are less physically happy. Those parts of the brain responsible for creating warm feelings of contentment are physically switched on by altruism. Even small amounts of generous behaviour elicit this glow of goodness.

It’s about the act of giving, not the amount you actually give. While we probably suspected this to be the case, it’s interesting that actual brain activity can be measured with clinical data.

Humans are hardwired to be attracted to generosity – and turned off by selfishness and greed. From an evolutionary perspective, generous behaviour attracts a mate (and friends). We instinctively  want to spend time with those who care about others. During the festive period, it’s interesting to note that those who spend money on others report higher levels of happiness. This is compared to those who only look after themselves.

Learning to accept generosity

I always encourage my children to ‘be a bit kinder than necessary’. We never know what is going on behind the scenes in someone else’s life. I’ve been more reminded of this recently as my eldest daughter Amaryllis (Lily) has started publicly speaking about the trauma of her hidden disability. She has an auto-immune disorder and it makes me more aware of invisible pain conditions, not obvious to others.

Being more generous and non-judgemental is something perhaps we can all work on as we gather with others to be generous in return. It works both ways, so be prepared to accept thanks and praise. Accept words of gratitude and generosity. Above all, in the words of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Give what you have, it may be better than you dare to think’ – both for others, as well as ourselves.

Read more from Liz’s life