Building Trust through Generosity

Love – what we can learn from science and math

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Corinthians 9:6-8

But really? Giving to others will return to us, like a garden, a bounty?

Science is now catching up to that old wisdom. A neurological study published in Nature Communications found there may be some biological truth to the maxim after all. The study showed that generosity changed the activity in people’s brains in ways that increase feelings of happiness, even if the generous act is small or only imagined. We are built to give.

Scientists at the University of Zurich and elsewhere began by recruiting 50 men and women and asking them to complete questionnaires about their current mood. They then were given 25 Swiss francs (about $25) once a week for the next month. Half of the 50 were asked to spend this on themselves. The other half were instructed to choose a new recipient each week on whom to spend the money. In other words, half the volunteers agreed to be selfish and the other half to be generous.

At the beginning of the study, participants slid into an fM.R.I. machine with a computer screen that flashed hypothetical scenarios involving monetary gifts to a loved one at a personal cost. The fM.R.I. recorded their brain activity as volunteers decided how they would react to each situation.

Afterward, the researchers again asked participants about their mood, especially happiness, and compared the results with the responses on the initial survey. Those who agreed to give away money reported feeling significantly happier than those who planned to spend it on themselves. They also made more generous choices during the fM.R.I. testing, agreeing to more scenarios that came at a personal cost. And their brains worked differently, too. When the study subjects who had pledged to spend money made generous picks, the fM.R.I. scans showed greater activity in a portion of the brain, the temporo-parietal junction, associated with altruism. And that portion of their brains was also showing greater functional connectivity, communicating more readily with another part of the brain, the ventral striatum, known as the brain’s reward center.

In effect, the pledge to be generous primed people to be more giving. There are probably evolutionary undercurrents to this process. Our system of social engagement kept us safe in tribes, and giving to others was one way to ensure that the family stayed healthy and secure. Our brains then were built to find happiness in this action of altruism.

This axiom works in relationship as well. The Nash equilibrium, made famous by the movie “A Beautiful Mind” was used by John Gottman to test a way to codify love in his book Principia Amoris. His research showed that people automatically evaluate every human transaction on a scale of positive to negative. To repair the damage of missing each other’s bids to connect, individuals must accommodate their partner’s needs as well as their own.

That, says Gottman, is the measure of trust—the degree to which you believe your partner has your interests in mind and can listen to you nondefensively, even if you can’t stand each other in the moment. It is the single most important factor that takes a marriage beyond the fabled seven-year breakup point.  represents mathematically the ways they influence each other and what the consequences of those interactions are.

A life time relationship is built on those that embody the motto: “When you’re in pain, the world stops and I listen.” That phrase sounds more like poetry than mathematics.

Inspired by: Giving Proof

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