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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Science of Giving

  • Peter Greer, Greg Lafferty
  • 2015 27 Nov
The Science of Giving

The Science of Giving

Biology has proven that when we give, we really do receive a high. The part of the brain that activates when receiving “rewarding stimuli”—the ventral striatum—fires when we give to others. This is the same reaction that comes when we see a beautiful piece of art or go for a run. Call it a giver’s high.

Other studies demonstrate the same results: We become happier when we give. Those who have the largest budgets for giving tend to be the most satisfied. One study showed that people are happier when they are shopping for others than when they are shopping for themselves. Participants were given a small sum of money, from five to twenty dollars, along with simple instructions. Half the group was free to spend the money either on themselves or on others, while the second group was instructed to spend only on themselves. Afterward, the people who spent money on others were significantly happier. That’s the blessedness that God built into his grace-and-generosity economy.

Appetite for Giving

In the United States, we’ve developed super-sized appetites for pleasure, but we haven’t experienced a corresponding rise in our taste for giving. Robert Putnam’s well-known research, reported in his Bowling Alone, identified an alarming downturn in charitable giving:

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Trends in American philanthropy relative to our resources are dismaying, for in the 1990s, Americans donated a smaller share of our personal income than at any time since the 1940. . . . In 1960, we gave away about $1 for every $2 we spent on recreation; in 1997, we gave away less than 50¢ for every $2 we spent on recreation.

Selfishness is trending—and has been for decades. But it’s not just “other people” who are caught in the flow. As I (Peter) researched these issues and did a little self-examination, I found that the stats aren’t about America but about me. When I looked back over my tax returns, I saw exactly the same trend. As my income increased, the percentage of my giving decreased. In fact, my percentage of giving was highest when I was living in Rwanda and earning $24,000 a year.

Recognizing a need to change, our family is working to follow the example of friends who committed to giving at least one percent more every year. Giving should cost something, and this simple step helps our family acquire an appetite for generosity.

Practice the Power of Giving

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It shouldn’t take another stock market crash to remind us that wealth accumulation is havel. But we’re so hard-wired to hoard that it’s hard to change. And some of us have dug deep holes. We’d like to give, but we just can’t see how we can afford it. Plus we have kids engaged in expensive activities that we’re convinced are integral to their growth. Who wants to rob them to give to others?

If you’ve never developed generous habits before midlife, it’s a very challenging time to change. But it can be done.

Recently my wife and I (Peter) had a much overdue conversation about finances. (Not on date night.) We pored over our expenditures, wondering where all the money had gone, and found that we hadn’t made a single major purchase. It was all nickel-and-dime stuff: CVS, Walmart, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts, Amazon. It was death by a thousand paper cuts. And really, what did we have to show for it?

If we wanted to become more generous, we had to become prudent on a daily basis.

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One of the best habits I know is writing down everything you spend. Log it each day. In a week, you’ll see how quickly the discretionary spending adds up, and it’ll give you pause the next time you think about a frivolous purchase. Do that simultaneously with disciplined, automated giving to your church or other charity, and you’ll find you can redirect a nice monthly sum—with virtually no pain. If you’re hardcore and want to feel your sacrifice, you’ll have to cut deeper.

But it’s easy to avoid giving. Just do what you’ve always done. No one will ever know. Greed is anonymous. Unless you run for political office, your record will never come to light—unless, of course, you believe in the day when everyone stands before God and every record comes to light.

But that seems so far away to most of us. What we really need is something closer and more tangible. Like friends.

Recently a few good friends decided to try friendship-based accountability for their giving. They made a pact that begins, “We desire to follow God and invite each other to hold us accountable in the way we use our resources. . . We will be open and honest with each other, seeking to provide counsel and encouragement to align our hearts and our wallets.”

They actually open their “books” to each other, inviting questions and feedback. It’s like getting a free and recurring audit, minus the threat of penalties and prison. Sound scary? A little awkward? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. These friends are finding impetus to budget more wisely and give more generously, while also experiencing joy and camaraderie in the process.

[Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in MidLife by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty. Copyright (c) 2015 by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.]

Peter Greer is the president and CEO of HOPE International, a global faith-based microfinance organization. Peter is a graduate of Messiah College and Harvard University. He previously served as managing director for Urwego Community Banking in Rwanda and as a microfinance technical adviser in Zimbabwe and Cambodia. Peter is the coauthor of The Poor Will Be Glad, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good and Mission Drift. He and his wife, Laurel, live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with their three children.

Greg Lafferty is the senior pastor of Willowdale Chapel, a church with campuses in Kennett Square and Jennersville, Pennsylvania. Previously Greg served at both Wheaton Bible Church and Christ Community Church in suburban Chicago, and Saddleback Church in Southern California. He and his wife, Deane, have three children.

Publication date: November 27, 2015

1. Lalin Anik, et al., Feeling Good About Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior (Boston: Harvard Business SchoolWorking Paper, 2009), p. 10.

2. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 123.