Why It Feels 'Blessed' to Give

It is as good for the giver as the receiver, scientists say.

— -- How many times this Christmas season will you hear the expression "it is better to give than to receive?" Lots, no doubt.

The only problem is that's a misquote, and the evolution of the original version is an interesting reflection on how our understanding of generosity and altruism has changed. The original quote, attributed to Jesus, said "blessed," not "better."

Do the words mean the same thing?

Blessed, according to my dictionary, means the giver will be "revered, favored, happy," and is thus receiving something in exchange. Better just means better than good. So it's not a totally bad thing, but there may be no reward.

I'm no Bible scholar, but my guess is whoever uttered the original statement -- and there's some debate over whether it was really Jesus -- hit the nail on the head as to why we can sometimes be so generous. What we really want is to be blessed.

Charles Darwin was so troubled by altruism that it made him question his own findings.

If organisms, including humans, are basically selfish and willing to do anything to stay ahead of the pack, why do we give anything away? Why not breeze right on by the nice lady ringing the bell in hopes you will drop a dollar or two in her Christmas kettle?

The scientific literature is rich with attempts to answer that. Not all of them agree, but there is a general theme running through many of them. We pull out a buck and drop it in the pot because we need each other. And getting blessed wouldn't be so bad either.

One such study, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that we give, even to strangers, because we want to be held in high esteem (or blessed.) We give, according to this research, because of our "inherent uncertainty of social life."

Bluntly speaking, we really want that nice lady with the bell to like us, and if we just pass by she probably won't. That's the reason, these researchers conclude, we will leave a tip for a waiter we never expect to see again -- just in case we do.

A study last year from the University at Buffalo found a different reason for giving: It could save your life. Stress is a killer, and these scientists studied 846 residents of Michigan to see if helping someone else eased the stress caused by having a lousy job, getting sick, or losing a member of the family.

Participants in the study who said they had really helped someone else during the preceding 12 months showed significantly less stress than those who had not.

The subjects were followed for five years, and during that period "those who had helped others during the previous year were less likely to die than those who had not helped others," psychologist Michael Poulin said in releasing that study.

That doesn't necessarily mean they gave money, but time is a gift that can be more precious than gold.

In another attempt to find out if it is better to give than to receive, psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, came up with a finding that was, quite literally, shocking. They recruited 20 happy couples and put the women through a brain scanner while their guys were standing nearby receiving painful electric shocks.

In some cases, the female could reach out and touch her guy, or squeeze his arm, and in other cases she couldn't. The scanners revealed that her stress went down when she touched him while trying to ease his pain. And the area of her brain associated with rewards lit up.

"This finding suggests that support-giving may have stress-reducing effects for the person who provides the support," the study concluded.

In other words, giving has its own rewards.

Even a monkey knows that, according to researchers at Duke University, although a monkey may not admit it.

The Duke scientists wanted to find out whether monkeys benefit from giving. So they hooked monkeys up to sensitive electrodes that could follow the action of individual neurons in the monkeys' brains.

Each monkey had the option of awarding fruit juice to himself, or to another monkey, or to both, or to neither. Each monkey was "first and foremost" eager to award the juice to himself. But when he had to give some to another monkey to get some for himself, he was willing to share.

OK, so maybe that's not altruistic. But we're talking monkeys here, and at least they gave a little.

The monkey study does show that to some level altruism goes way back in evolutionary history and is apparently hard-wired into our brains.

We learned when we first started hunting big animals that we need each other. So helping the guy down the road may be better for the giver, especially when dinner time rolls around.

Which brings us back to "blessed," or "better." Which is correct? I'll stick with the original.