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The Science of Giving and How It Can Help Your Kids

volunteers sorting food donations into boxes

By Sandi Schwartz | Contributor

Want to really make your kids happy? Teach them the importance of giving to others. Contrary to common belief that kids need and want more “stuff” to be happy, science tells us that it is the act of giving to others that actually boosts happiness and can even improve health and other areas of their lives.

Children Were Born to Give

Believe it or not, children enter this world with a natural instinct to be compassionate to others. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute discovered that infants help others even though they are too young to have learned about being kind and polite. The children take action because of their own motivation, and not because they expect a reward.

Actually, humans have evolved over time to be compassionate, and our brains are now wired to respond to those who are suffering. Kindness has become a “survival of the fittest” trait. Charles Darwin advised that “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” In other words, the better we get along and help each other out, the more successful our society will be.

Do children continue to show compassion as they grow? A breakthrough study by psychologists at the University of British Columbia determined that young children are happier to give than to receive. Toddlers who were asked to give away their own treats expressed greater happiness when they shared with others. The researchers interpreted the results of this study to mean that anytime people participate in pro-social behavior, such as volunteering and giving charitable donations, we experience an increase in happiness.

Children have the foundation to be kind, but it’s our job as parents to continue to nurture this part of them as they grow. If we neglect to do so, negative life experiences can, unfortunately, tear down this beautiful instinct.

By providing our children with opportunities to give, they will be happier and healthier and have the power to pass along that goodness to so many people.

How Giving Transforms Our Kids

Numerous studies have uncovered several ways that giving enhances our children’s lives.

Boosts Happiness

When we make others happy by giving a gift or our support, we experience a physiological change called a helper’s high. It is a euphoric physical sensation resulting from our brain releasing chemicals called endorphins. According to Psychology Today, the helper’s high is a literal “high,” similar to a drug-induced sensation. It makes us feel good naturally, giving us a rush that leaves us elated and excited. This positive energy is similar to how we feel after exercising.

Improves Health

Research shows that giving leads to better health. In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, a professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University, explains that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness. In addition, a 1999 study led by Doug Oman of the University of California, Berkeley suggests that giving may improve physical health because it helps reduce stress. Finally, a 2006 joint study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Tennessee indicated that people who helped others had lower blood pressure than participants who did not.

Promotes Social Connection

Several studies suggest that when we give, our generosity is ultimately rewarded by others.

These positive actions promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens our relationships. Moreover, we feel a bond towards those who we help. All of this is important because having positive social interactions is central to good mental and physical health.

Encourages an Attitude of Gratitude

When we give to those in need, we feel a sense of gratitude because it puts things in perspective. Volunteer work is a great opportunity for our children to appreciate what they have and gives them a glimpse of the broader world. Meanwhile, gratitude is another very important ingredient for happiness and good health.

Gives Children the Opportunity to Inspire Others

Those who are on the receiving end of a good deed typically want to pass along that positive feeling and help others. Researcher James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego found that just one act of kindness can inspire several more acts of kindness by others. In this case, children have the opportunity to be mentor to others, inspiring a chain of kindness and compassion.

Best Ways to Teach Children About Giving

Teaching our children how to pay it forward is easier than you may think. There are endless opportunities to volunteer as a family and to give our children meaningful experiences that will enhance both their lives and the individuals they help. Here are some tips on how to incorporate giving into your children’s lives.

Discuss how they can help. Find a few minutes during your day to ask your children who they would like to help. Provide some options like babies, animals, people without homes, children who do not have families, students who need books, or the elderly. Talk about the different types of projects you can do to help those in need. For some inspiration, read books about giving and kindness to your children.

Talk about the importance of charitable giving. If you choose to start a monetary collection for charity, consider creating or buying giving boxes for each child. Ask them to set goals about how much they would like to give throughout the year and which organizations they would like to donate to. Check in weekly or monthly throughout the year to see how close they are to reaching their goal.

Help your children discover their passion. Our passion should drive how we give because when we are excited about a project, we can put all of our heart and soul into it. Also, when we care about what we are working on, we will get more out of it and feel happier. Help your children identify their talents, skills, and interests that they can put to good use.

Give as a group. Volunteering during a community service event with others accentuates the happiness boost because you are also building social connections.

Choose projects close to home. Giving to a place locally where you can actually see and experience the results is most effective. Studies have also found that we are happiest when we give to a charity through a friend, relative, or social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation to a cause half way around the world.

Find ways to volunteer as a family. By volunteering as a family, you make giving a priority and build it into your children’s daily routine. There are so many ways that you can give together, and if you don’t find something out there that you love, create it yourself. You can find volunteer opportunities for your family by checking your local government website; searching for local charities in your area; asking friends and neighbors; or visiting sites like Idealist, VolunteerMatch, and JustServe.

There is certainly no shortage of ways to help others. The next time you feel like your child’s bedroom closet is going to explode, ask them to fill a bag with items to give to kids who could really use them. By providing our children with opportunities to give, they will be happier and healthier and have the power to pass along that goodness to so many people.

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