If You Really Want to Save the World, Just Give

Studies show that giving makes you feel pretty amazing — and learning that starts in childhood. (Photo: Yuliya Evstratenko/Shutterstock)

We are living through some unprecedentedly complicated times. The speed and quantity of information — plus a population headed towards 8 billion humans — means the constant barrage of data is increasing in volume and scope. We can know more, in more detail, about people near and far. And it's stressful. Once, an event like the Thai soccer team getting stuck in a cave would have gotten some coverage in the daily newspaper; in 2018, you could follow along in detail.

Because these stressful news events are often far away and pop up more frequently, it can make us simultaneously informed and disempowered. There's plenty to worry about, which can be dispiriting and depressing. Indeed, over 1 billion earthlings currently suffer from anxiety and depression. That's where giving comes in.

"We've all heard that giving makes you happy and it's better to give than receive. But have you actually thought of why?" asks Jacqueline Way, founder of 365give, in her TedTalk below. She goes on to talk about how scientists have studied giving and what it does to our brains — and it does quite a bit.

"When we give, our endorphins kick in, giving us this natural high feeling. They've actually called it the 'helper's high,'" Way says.

Way details some of the other brain chemicals that are affected by giving. Oxytocin, one of the hormones involved in bonding (sometimes called the "love hormone") kicks in, and serotonin goes up. Meanwhile cortisol, which is caused by stress and has been linked to aging, goes down. Many studies back this up, including one on volunteering. "Researchers found that volunteers also scored highest on their mental health scores. The two were linked so directly that the more a person volunteered, the happier they were," wrote Jenn Savedge in Volunteer to help others (and help yourself) here on MNN.

How to get started

So, why not get some of that goodness each day? Way started doing that with a her child, Nick, when he was 3. She did all kinds of giving, as long as it included something that would help the planet, a person or an animal.

Way and her son made a list and then got started. They donated blankets to an animal rescue, they picked up trash on the beach for three minutes. Way started keeping a blog so she could record what she was doing with her son, and people all over the world were inspired by daily giving. Soon, a friend of Way's who is a teacher brought it to school. After seeing how well it worked, the teacher said: "Jacqueline, my kids are understanding how their actions can make a better world. It's connected them to each other and their community, and most importantly, it's making my classroom happy."

The 365give challenge has challenged thousands of children in dozens of schools, as well as random people who have found the site via Way's TedTalk or otherwise. If you want to improve your mood and outlook, you could join 365give, which has simple parameters:

Do something that helps the planet, a person or an animal. Go to the park and pick up a small bag of garbage, help your neighbor by bringing their empty garbage can back to their garage, tell a friend what you appreciate about them, buy a stranger a coffee. Give someone a hug. It’s easy, and you'll feel great once you are done!

On the 365give site, you can map your give and see where others are giving, and share your work on social media.

Personalize the program

donation jar of coins
You may want to save money each day and then donate it to charity. (Photo: Cozine/Shutterstock)

Or, you could create your own version of the program. You could give a dollar or two a day away to interesting GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaigns, or you could put a dollar a day into a jar, and then donate larger amounts to a charity you love in your community. Or you could focus on non-monetary gifts, like baking cookies for your local volunteer fire department, giving reusable bags away to people at the grocery store, bringing a sandwich to a homeless person you see on your commute, or volunteering time to read to kids.

Consider keeping track by starting a Giving Journal where you can record what you do each day to stay motivated. Or get a few friends to join in with you and share a group text of what you did that day to keep each other going. Knowing what kinds of things your friends or family are giving each day will remind you that some days it might be something small (picking up litter at your bus stop) and others might be bigger (adopting a cat) — but it all counts. And seeing other good deeds will be a feel-great part of your day, upping your happiness as well.

"One good deed begets another" isn't just an aphorism, it's been proven. This article from Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley sums it up perfectly:

"A study by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people. In fact, the researchers found that altruism could spread by three degrees — from person to person to person to person. 'As a result,' they write, 'each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met.'"

So, not only is giving good for you and good for whoever or whatever you give to, but it also has positive ripple effects too.

"[Giving] is how we're going to go from anxiety and depression to happy. Together, we can all start small, and we can make the world a better world, a happier world, one give, one day at a time," says Way.