Super G: The Confluence of Gratitude and Giving

Gratitude and Giving

Why do we give?

What compels some of us to donate a pint of blood every six weeks for 30 years?

How is it we continue to give of ourselves and our time in situations—like soup kitchens and homeless shelters—where we receive no material gain?

Feeling good is just one of the more pedestrian benefits of gratitude and altruism, according to Saint Mary’s Psychology Professor Mary True. Other, more profound benefits involve gaining a sense of community and belonging.

“A generous life is a connected life,” said True, who teaches human development in the Psychology Department. “We have known for a long time that the most critical moments of connection, the birth and the nurturing of an infant, are accompanied by the release of oxytocin, the trust hormone. A solid body of more recent research has demonstrated that other social interactions, including warm couple interactions, father-child play, and expressed gratitude, are linked to—and enhanced by—the release of oxytocin. We are biologically wired to give.”

Leading experts in what’s called positive psychology research support True’s insights. Participants who kept a gratitude journal—nothing elaborate, just a few sentences a week—were more optimistic, exercised more and visited their physicians less, wrote Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, in a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study.

It turns out there’s more to philanthropy than just doing good and more to gratitude than just saying, “Thanks.” Grateful and generous people are happier, healthier and more positive than people who aren’t, according to emerging data.

Thankfulness can also work as a cardiac and neurological super food. Emmons’ studies have linked gratitude with reduced blood pressure and lowered risk of heart attack. And experiments by the National Institutes of Health suggest that giving thanks not only fends off anxiety and depression, but also results in better, deeper sleep. In fact, gratitude stimulates activity in the area of the brainstem where the neurotransmitter dopamine originates, helping to regulate our z’s, according to Roland Zahn’s study, “The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence From Functional MRI.” Dopamine also regulates movement and emotional responses, and helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

Researching exactly how gratitude affects our brain and DNA drives the staff and student fellows at the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley. An unusual on-campus gratitude think tank, the center sponsors and supports the same wellness science it later helps people apply to their own lives and communities.

In September, the center launched its first MOOC (massive open online course)—The Science of Happiness, a free, eight-week-long class that “zeroes in on a fundamental finding from positive psychology,” said the center’s Marketing Director, Elise Proulx. “Namely, that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social ties and contributing to something bigger than yourself: the greater good.”

While people may think that giving and doing good are the province of older adults, it turns out that college-age Saint Mary’s students—a cadre of young people who are pound-for-pound among the most active philanthropists at any school nationwide—are often way ahead of the curve when it comes to community service.

Cultivating and harnessing students’ desire to help is the function of the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA), which since 1999 has promoted a culture of social responsibility congruent with Lasallian values at Saint Mary’s. CILSA’s staff involves the entire campus community, from student leaders to faculty to alumni, organizing and carrying out service campaigns in partnership with Bay Area companies and nonprofits.

Giving back isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, said CILSA Director Marshall Welch.

“We see both immediate and long-term impact on students in CILSA as well as SMC students in general. The act of service and giving extends the learning experience beyond the four walls of the classroom,” Welch said. “They literally see and experience the complex issues and dynamics of what they study and read about in class. This is often a transformative experience in which the lives, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors of students change.”

Happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social ties and contributing to something bigger than yourself: the greater good.

—Greater Good Science Center

After a period of initiation he terms “squirm and learn,” Welch noted that many CILSA student leaders go on to graduate school and/or careers with a service or social justice component.

For Brother Michael Murphy, director of Mission and Ministry, the spiritual aspects of philanthropy focus on “solidarity with the three L’s: the least, the last and the lost. It’s giving with the eyes of faith, being mindful of those people who are fractured, excluded in our midst and living on the margins of society. It’s saying ‘I’m not the Messiah, but I do have a role to play.’ That’s the mystery of philanthropy. It invites all people—from Christian to atheist—to ask, ‘What are you doing with your fire, and how are you developing a compassionate heart?’”

One local nonprofit that is indicative of CILSA’s “head, heart and hands” and Brother Michael’s “compassionate heart” approach is the Mindful Life Project started in the East Bay by Saint Mary’s graduate JG Larochette ’02. The program, which offers yoga, therapeutic art, hip-hop and mindfulness classes for students in need, has improved attention spans and caring, and decreased conflicts and prejudice.

“In the work I am doing with youth in Richmond and Rodeo, I see how important it is to give students an opportunity to be still and quiet while opening up to the experiences around them,” Larochette wrote on his Mindful Life blog. “They then have the capability to be in tune with their inner self, and be way more present with the ones around them.”

Welch has noticed that young people who have learned mindfulness in programs like Larochette’s reflect more on their own philanthropy.

“Students often recognize or discover their own power and privilege while giving of themselves,” he said. “They make meaning of the service experience and often discover that they receive as much from those they serve as they do from serving others.”

And this theme spans all academic disciplines at Saint Mary’s.

“My experience as a professor for the last 25 years is that the students we are now teaching (the millennials) are very willing—eager, in fact—to step out of their comfort zone and engage with persons and communities different than their own,” True said. “Nationwide, research has shown an upward trend in students’ interest in addressing issues of justice and the common good.”

These observations and research in gratitude seem to suggest that Saint Mary’s students are getting high on giving back. Studies have characterized the neurological benefits of those who help out as an empathic joy or warm glow, which researchers now say is the brain’s way of rewarding us for the simple logic of good deeds.

“There are spiritual benefits to service and giving,” Welch said. “We sustain ourselves spiritually when we give something back through time, talent or treasure.”