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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Being generous makes us happy and connects us to one another

The gift of giving could be treating someone to a meal, an outing, or donating the money to a worthy cause

Illustration by Gary Clement
Illustration by Gary Clement

“This is for you’ he said, and handed over all his cash.

My son’s Eid money had inflated to an amount he’s never handled before; he had amassed Dh500 from various sources as gifting money to children is what is done to celebrate Eid. I think this is so much better than buying things for them.

I was gobsmacked. There is so much he could do with it, including save it. He’s after a flat in the town where he wants to go to university - I wish I had his forward planning insight at 11.

But no, it was mine, he said. I must take and keep it, he told me.

What a lovely, loving thing to do.

Part of me hopes this isn’t because he’s concerned about me, or us, in some way. I do talk about the cost of things, and discuss spend options and priorities with him.

But no, that was not it. He really, really wanted me to have it. For me. To do something for myself.

What my son did with his money was not exactly hand it over to bring about social change – let’s say to a charity – but it was no less important.

He gave it away. Brain scans have shown a link between altruistic acts and feelings of contentment.

An experiment in Switzerland concluded a link between generosity and happiness. It established that the neurons in the area of the brain associated with generosity activate neurons associated with happiness. This pathway was ‘highly active’ in the group of volunteers that had been given money to spend on other people. These results were not found in the other half of volunteers who were given money to spend on themselves.

The conclusion: being generous makes us happy.

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Read more from Nima Abu Wardeh:

Don't let the D in death or divorce lead to financial stress

A cautionary tale about hankering after a fairy-tale home

Give your child time and the right education rather than hard cash

It takes true grit and perseverance to achieve real financial success

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There are other benefits too – health is one.

Research published in the science journal Nature Communications, found that people that who are very giving in relationships - like being emotionally available and hospitable, were more likely to enjoy excellent health (48 per cent) versus those who were not so giving (31 per cent).

As I read this outcome, I realised it feeds directly into a fantastic TED talk I watched on vulnerability just this week. The speaker, Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, did a wonderful job laying out how being open, giving in every way, is the best way to live, even when it does not have the desired result – for example asking someone out who does not accept.

Her initial research focused on the concept of shame, and how it is that some people cope, while others crumble.

The answer – to her surprise and distress (she is of the ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’ ilk) – is the ability to be vulnerable, to embrace uncertainty and to accept that life is messy. In other words, the findings went against the very fibre of how she lived.

I highly recommend watching her talks. I will tie in what she concludes with the simple act of giving money, or sharing it.

Part of giving money away, of being generous, is exposing yourself to things that might be unpleasant:

• What if you need that money down the line?

• What if the person you are giving to rejects what you are doing?

The point is to embrace your vulnerability and just do it. Because you want to, and you can.

At the core of this is connection: our connections with others, and, if you think about the idea of shame and vulnerability, it’s also about our connection with and to ourselves. Connection is key to life. We literally depend on it. And it seems that the older we get, the more we embrace it. A study by the National University of Singapore found that older participants (average age 70) were more likely to give money to complete strangers than the other group – where the average age was 23.

The amount of money given away does not influence the level of wellbeing; the mere promise to be more generous can achieve this end.

Let’s call this pro-social spend. The gift of giving that creates or enhances connections. It could be treating someone to a meal, an outing, or donating the money to a cause. It’s all pro-social spend. It leads to happier people and societies. It sounds huge and it is.

The more I dig, the more I conclude that key to all this is that no reciprocity is expected, or required. When we are vulnerable, giving, gifting – it’s about just that, what we’re doing – with nothing expected in return.

I accepted the gift from my son. It’s important that he experiences giving, and gets the physiological highs from it. I said I would accept the generous gift and put it in our ‘fun fund’. We plan on learning how to surf this year, so that’s what it will be spent on. When the time comes, I will hand over Dh500 in cash to him, and have him pay for lessons with it. I wonder how he will feel then.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com