14 March 2018

Why It’s Human Nature To Give To Others

The old caveman software in our brain doesn’t just punish us if we’re doing something that threatens our survival. It also rewards us when we’re doing something that increases our chances of survival – so we’re encouraged to do it again. Being in the company of others is a perfect example of this. The moment we are physically in the presence of another human we start to release the hormone oxytocin throughout our bodies, something often referred to as the feeling of receiving a warm hug. When a mother gives birth to a new born baby she has huge levels of oxytocin in her body which creates a strong bond to that child, and therefore she’s more likely to care for it. Oxytocin also promotes breastfeeding as well as causing higher levels of trust in groups of men. By producing this biochemical feedback loop we feel better and better every time we’re taking an action that involves self-sacrifice and the promotion of group welfare.

It’s a peculiar thought, isn’t it? The only reason you’re able to read this now is because at some point someone was willing to dedicate and sacrifice their time for your survival. It was only through their love (even if it didn’t always feel like it) that allowed you to be sitting where you are today.  Humans, unlike other animals, are helpless at birth. We depend on others to survive and others depend on us to survive – it’s a wonderful circle of giving value.

However, this can seem quite cold hearted, almost pessimistic for some, that our desire to give and contribute to others can be seen as no more than a ‘gimmick’ to better our chances of survival. I remember feeling like I’d “lost” something when I discovered this fact. After I’d learnt that giving, contributing, and in some sense loving, could all be symptoms traced back to an evolutionary principle around my own survival. And it is sad... if you look at it that way. But after a while it hit me. Actually, isn’t it wonderful that it feels so good when we do something for others? Just because we know the reason why that is, doesn’t mean the feeling we get from that action isn’t any less valuable, isn’t any less magical. 

Knowing the evolutionary reason behind the gift of giving isn’t an excuse to stop loving, it shouldn’t make that feeling any less meaningful. Isn’t it wonderful actually that out of the billions of species that have existed, we happen to be the one in the five billion that can feel the desire for connection at such a high level. Over the millions of years it has taken us to evolve we have embedded in us, in the very fibre of our being, a biochemical process that allows us to experience joy and a sense of belonging when we connect, contribute and support our fellow humans. Studies have shown if we were to give money to a stranger in need we would feel better from that process, by giving away something and contributing, than the stranger would feel from receiving it. All these things are obvious, aren’t they? You know in the past when you’ve truly given something it feels great. But this was second nature for our hunter gatherer ancestors.

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