Welcome to infectious generosity. As far-fetched and idyllic though it sounds, it’s an actual concept. “It describes the act of giving as contagious, from one person to another,” explains Diana Maatouk, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist at The Hummingbird Clinic. “In other words, the generosity of one person, can have a ripple effect, leading to a positive effect on a larger community,” she says.
The idea focuses on the power of positive behaviour within a group. It generates a chain reaction, influencing others to adopt similar attitudes and behaviours, explains Maatouk. When people witness acts of kindness, they might be more likely to engage in such behaviours themselves, fostering a culture of generosity and compassion.
“It’s the kind of generosity that creates a ripple effect, going from one person to another, creating a positive chain reaction of giving,” says Rahaf Kobeissi, mindset, mental health coach, founder of Rays Your Mental Health, Dubai. “While it’s not a medical or scientific term, it captures the idea that generosity can be contagious in a social and emotional sense,” she says.
Why is generosity so important for the individual and collective well-being?
Generosity lights up the brain, literally
You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that being giving makes you feel good. However, it’s true: Being generous does have some important effects on the brain.
When people discover that their opinions align with those of a group, the brain regions that are linked to the sensation of reward light up, explains Maatouk. “This neural activity is found to correlate with their subsequent attempts to align more closely with the group. Consequently, when people learn that others exhibit kindness, it is possible that they will develop an increased appreciation for kindness, influencing their own values and behaviours in a positive direction,” she says.
The neural activity is found to correlate with their subsequent attempts to align more closely with the group. Consequently, when people learn that others exhibit kindness, it is possible that they will develop an increased appreciation for kindness, influencing their own values and behaviours in a positive direction...
What is this neural activity? According to a pioneering 2017 study published in Nature Communications titled ‘Neural Link Between Generosity and Happiness’, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told 50 people that they would be receiving about $100 over a few weeks. Half of the people were asked to spend that money on themselves, and half were asked to spend it on someone they knew.
The researchers were keen to investigate whether simply promising generosity was enough to make people happier. So before giving any money, they brought everyone into the lab and told them to think about a friend they'd like to give a gift to and how much they would hypothetically spend.
Following this, they performed functional MRI scans to measure activity in the regions of the brain associated with social behaviour, generosity, happiness and decision-making. It was observed that there is significantly increased activity in the area of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), when making generous decisions. The TPJ is generally associated with empathy and social cognition. Not just this, the connectivity between the TPJ and a part of the brain related to reward and happiness, the ventral striatum, was enhanced in the participants who promised to be generous.
Those who had agreed to spend money on others, had more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with altruism and happiness, compared to those who agreed to spend on themselves.
When we participate in pro-social behaviours such as volunteering or providing support to others, there’s also a release of endorphins. These contribute to the feelings of happiness and a sense of satisfaction and purpose that people often report after performing acts of kindness
In short, the generous participants reported higher levels of happiness after the experiment was over.
This act of giving can significantly enhance psychological well-being, says Maatouk. “After giving, an act of kindness, people not only feel more connected to others and happier, but it helps them to feel as though they are a good person and adds meaning to their lives. Receiving kindness makes us feel good too and is associated with higher levels of well-being,” she says.
So, when we participate in pro-social behaviours such as volunteering or providing support to others, there’s also a release of endorphins, explains Lauren Smith, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. “These contribute to the feelings of happiness and a sense of satisfaction and purpose that people often report after performing acts of kindness,” she says.
What motivates people to be generous?
Why are some people so giving? We always wonder, what’s in it for them?
Well, there’s a complex web of reasons and can vary from person to person. Perhaps sometimes they’re just naturally empathetic, according to Kobeissi. “They feel a sense of compassion for those in need. They give, because they genuinely care about the well-being of others,” she says. Generous people possess certain personality traits, such as humility and agreeableness, which is associated with generosity, says Maatouk. Their values, morals and a sense of identity also affects how willingly they engage in generous acts.
Being empathetic creates a sense of oneness with others. “When we help others in this state of oneness, we feel as if they are also helping ourselves,” she says.
Moreover, being giving to someone else, leads to feelings of fulfillment, satisfaction and joy. “When people experience these positive emotions through giving, it can serve as a powerful motivator to continue being generous,” says Kobeissi. Sometimes, it is also driven by societal expectations and cultural norms. People believe that it is the “right” thing to do, as they want to conform to the expectations of their community.
When people experience these positive emotions through giving, it can serve as a powerful motivator to continue being generous. It can also sometimes be driven by societal expectations and cultural norms. People may give because they believe it's the right thing to do...
On the other hand, they believe it will always come back to them. “People are giving as they believe that their generosity will be reciprocated in the future, either directly or indirectly,” says Kobeissi.
Personal experiences also play a role in generating a sense of empathy in a person. “If you have somebody in your family, who died of a certain disease, then you become more sympathetic towards others with the same disease. You’re not helping your deceased loved one by giving money to strangers who you’re never going to meet. Yet, you’re willing to help. It’s due to the alignment between their situation and something in your own personal experience,” says Maatouk. “Our personal experience shapes where we give.”
What stops others from being generous?
There could be many reasons, ranging from personal experiences, beliefs instilled in a person while growing up, or even traumatic childhoods.
If a child has grown up in a deprived environment, that lacks emotional and financial security, they find it harder to empathise with others and be giving, says Maatouk. “As a reaction to the emotional and financial deprivation, the person might have developed a cold and pessimistic view of the world. In other words, their internal belief can be as follow: ‘I have barely received anything good from this life, why would I give what I crave for?’”
People who battle envy, also find it difficult to be giving, as it would take away the little amount of self-worth they have. “They perceive kindness as a sign of weakness, that eventually impoverishes their already limited resources,” adds Maatouk. “Instead of seeing it as an opportunity for connection growth, they see it as an act of further deprivation,” she adds.
How do we manifest infectious generosity?
It sounds like a utopian dream, but it is possible. Those small acts of kindness, could just go a long way.
You can start by leading by example, says Kobeissi. “When others see you being generous, they are more likely to be inspired to do the same,” she says. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean grand gestures: You can start small. Maybe something as easy as holding the door for someone, leaving small savouries on the desk of an overworked colleague, or maybe even helping a stranger pay for a coffee while standing in a queue.
“You could help, mentor someone or check in with elderly neighbours,” explains Smith. “You can share these inspiring stories, or kindness, be it from your experience or someone else’s, and their impact on social media. That might inspire others to do similar things,” she says.
Or, you could encourage friends, family and colleagues to get involved in volunteering opportunities. “Volunteering is a great way to give back to the community,” explains Kobeissi. Perhaps organising fundraisers, where people can come together, say the experts in consensus.
Another way is to encourage the “pay-it-forward” mentality. “Encourage people to ‘pay it forward’ by asking them to do something kind for someone else in return for a kind act they've received. This creates a chain reaction of generosity,” she says.