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The Science of Generous Living

By Debbie Wright | 26 March 2019


We are halfway through 40acts 2019 and, along with many faithful followers, every year our generosity campaign attracts thousands of new activists who get caught up in this wave of giving and altruism.

We know because our inbox and social media channels are brimming with stories of generosity and giving that touch our hearts and souls. We read them aloud, share over coffee and pore over pictures of people carrying out heart-warming acts for their neighbour, friend, boss or stranger.

In the first week we loved the story of the lady who took her miniature donkeys into a nursing home for pet therapy and shared her photos.

And on International Women’s Day this student got in touch: ‘I’m messaging you to say thank you for giving me the courage to do things that are outside my comfort zone. On Friday I went to London to the ‘Women of the World’ conference with school. I saw John who sells The Big Issue. I noticed he had a birthday badge on so decided to get everyone on the trip to chip in 20p to buy him a cake. I then stood in the middle of the station and sang “Happy Birthday!” I would normally be too proud and self-conscious to do that.’

It is an enormous and humbling privilege to be working in the Stewardship offices during this lead up to Easter and we are all encouraged and buoyed up by sharing these stories.

In Acts, Paul says: ‘In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ (Acts 20:35 NIV).

And over 2,000 years later, science is backing up Jesus’s words and revealing why we love these stories so much.

When scientists at the University of Melbourne1 gave out either 5 dollars or 20 dollars to unsuspecting passers-by, they were told they could purchase anything but it had to be for themselves. Some other participants were also given envelopes but this time they were invited to spend the money on someone else.

It won’t be a surprise to you - that the scientists found that the group who spent the money on others were much happier that those who spent the money on themselves. And there was no difference in happiness for the people who spent 5 dollars or 20 dollars on others. The act of giving, no matter what size, makes us feel good.

And it’s not just financial giving: when 200,000 people across 136 different countries were surveyed about the effects their charitable actions had upon them, happiness was an outcome on every continent for many different ways of acting generously.

Giving not only helps our mental well-being but also our physical health. Giving our time, advice, money, support, food or aid to others has scientifically been proved to reduce blood pressure, release oxytocin (a feel-good hormone) and enhance sleep.

In a recent study2 49,000 elderly people who still volunteered into old age were found to reduce mortality risk by nearly a quarter, even after adjusting for variables such as physical health, age and gender. Those that helped others, interacted and gave out significantly increased their lifespan and quality of life.

But before we rush out to donate, volunteer and give more in order to boost our health, happiness and lifespan – here’s the twist! Givers may only get these life-enhancing benefits when they’re not seeking them for themselves. Another scientific study found that giving for self-related reasons did not bring any of the benefits, either physical or mental, that we described earlier.

Only when we give from compassion - empathy for our fellow brother and sister, or a connection to a cause that touches us -will we benefit in any way ourselves. And we know that loving God and loving our neighbour is what spurs our 40acts community on. We still have a few weeks left of the campaign and we can’t wait to hear and see what else arrives in our inboxes.



1 Why Giving is Good for the Soul, Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne


2 The Science of Generosity, The John Templeton Foundation




Read more like this:

Cyclone Idai Appeal - how you can help

FAQ: Why should I give? 

The Line Between Greed and Generosity

Posted by Debbie Wright

Debbie Wright is Stewardship’s Head of Content and is passionate about generosity in all its guises. Besides occasional blogging and tweeting she creates resources and campaigns such as 40acts and Advent Wonder to inspire, engage and motivate the wider Christian community. Prior to joining, Debbie worked for A Rocha UK as editor of their national magazine and in a previous life worked as a TV producer/director for the BBC for 17 years.  Debbie is married to Graham; they have 4 daughters and a springer spaniel.  When not acting as taxi driver, she can be found on a salsa dance floor. Follow Debbie on Twitter @debwright99


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