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Warm Glow

September 24, 2008

If sex didn’t feel good, would as many people do it? If drugs didn’t make you high, would as many people take them? No—definitely not. We like to do what feels good, and we generally don’t like to do what doesn’t. Inverting the question, then, if GIVING felt good, would more people do it? I believe the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

And you know what? Here is a secret: giving can feel good. Amazingly good. It can feel so good, in fact, that the positive feeling from giving has been given its own unique name in the scientific literature: warm glow.

In a 2007 Science magazine article*, leading neuroscience researchers reported that under certain conditions, charitable giving causes parts of the human brain associated with the reward system (the pleasure centers) to light up. If you change the circumstances for giving, however—like making the giving compulsive or required (like taxes)—then no lighting in the pleasure centers is observed.
What does all this mean?

Simply put, not all giving is equal. There are certain circumstances in which giving just doesn’t feel as good. Change the circumstances for the giving, however, and–BINGO–the brain’s pleasure centers start firing more intensely. Same behaviors of giving, but different context and reasons for doing it.

The hypothesis of the Love-Revolution is simple: if we can understand the conditions that cause warm glow to happen when we give, then we can create giving opportunities that cause the warm glow feeling. The result is that we will better enjoy our giving experiences, and we will be more likely to continue giving in the future.

Let’s not underestimate the value in this: how much we enjoy something has a more powerful impact on our behavior than we might like to admit. If the South Beach Diet, for example, was as enjoyable as eating our favorite chocolate dessert, I would daresay we would all be walking around sporting rippling abs and toned triceps. In other words, by understanding how to find pleasure in helping others, we can empower ourselves to help others more abundantly and more joyfully.

A few years ago, I was talking to a gentleman who is a project director for the Red Cross. In speaking to a group of incoming volunteers who were going down to Louisiana to give their time and energy toward Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, he told them, “We don’t give because of what other people will think of us. Do you know why we give? Because of that rosy feeling we get in our chest.” I thought this was very interesting—the feeling of afterglow that followed giving was enough to make this man not just give himself, but to motivate an entire room full of volunteers to find the energy and the will to give.

All of this is very exciting. It is an opportunity to merge the best of charity and the best of neuroscience. More research still needs to be done to explore how our motives for giving effect our brain and our feelings. But we can clearly see exciting links being made between our brains and our humanity. This is cool stuff—science and technology are becoming friends with the realm of philosophy and ethics, and even with behaviors and ideals that are universally important to religion and spirituality. You can sense the potential for love growing as these disciplines come together to start trading notes from the lessons about human love that they have been accumulating over the past several millennia.

*Harbaugh, WT. “Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Giving.” Science. 2007Jun 15;316(5831):1622-5.


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    when i read this, it reminded me of some of the reactions to this post we discussed. it feels good, and it’s ok to say it!

    sending warmth

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  1. Come away, O human child « Love-Revolution

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