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It feels good to give and, it turns out, it’s also good for you.

So as we enter what could feel like a very long winter of COVID-19 discontent, some experts suggest one easy prescription for pandemic fatigue is to exercise generosity.

“We have seen time and time again that people feel good when they help others, particularly in the realm of financial generosity,” says Lara Aknin, an associate professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University and associate co-editor of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report.

In the 2019 report, Dr. Aknin and several colleagues looked specifically at happiness and so-called pro-social behaviour. They reviewed dozens of studies on the link between financial giving and volunteering and happiness spanning 134 nations around the world.

“The big picture evidence suggests certainly a very strong link between generosity and well-being,” Dr. Aknin says. “Some of the evidence, primarily from financial giving, suggests that giving to others can have these positive emotional consequences.”

In one study, the act of making charitable donations was shown to activate reward centres in the human brain, stimulating the orbital frontal cortex and the ventral striatum. In another, a Gallup World Poll of more than one million people in 30 countries, making a donation to a charity within the previous month emerged as one of the top six predictors of life satisfaction among participants.

“Even in young kids under the age of two we see these emotional expressions. They’re smiling more when they’re giving food away to others than when receiving food themselves,” says Dr. Aknin, who is also part of an international mental health task force for The Lancet COVID-19 Commission.

“The fact that we see this very early in life and we see activation of pleasure centres of the brain when people are generous seems to suggest that there might be something that is innately rewarding about giving,” she says. “I think it has something to do with the fact that our human ancestors relied on other people for their survival and generosity is one of the ways that we created and sustained those social bonds.”

For her own study published last year, Dr. Aknin recruited 1,200 ex-offenders to examine whether the “generosity glow” would surface in the same fashion.

Participants were designated money to either make a small purchase or keep for themselves, or make a donation to a real organization that provides school supplies in impoverished areas.

“Even among this sample with higher levels of anti-social tendencies, the emotional rewards of giving were consistent with what we had seen before,” she says.

We have seen time and time again that people feel good when they help others, particularly in the realm of financial generosity.

Lara Aknin, Associate professor, social psychology Simon Fraser University

Some of the ex-offenders even contacted Dr. Aknin afterwards.

“Many of them just said ‘very rarely, if ever, in my day-to-day life do I get a chance to give and I just wanted to say thanks,’” she recalls. “It really reflects what we argue is a pretty universal human phenomenon, which is that we’ve evolved to feel good about helping others.”

There is plenty of research on the physical and emotional effects of altruism, ranging from increased endorphins to lower blood pressure, says Paul Krismer, an executive coach and founder of the Happiness Experts Company consultant agency.

We have evolved to be rewarded for contributing to group well-being and altruism, Mr. Krismer says.

So when asked to examine their most deeply held values, most people rank towards the top kindness, fairness, family and community, he says, but the pandemic is certainly testing those values.

“We’re doing pretty poorly,” Mr. Krismer says. “People are angrier. They’re tense. They’re fearful and anxious and when they show up at the storefront, for example, they’re more demanding than they used to be, less patient.”

One of the remedies for that fear and anxiety is to reduce isolation, Mr. Krismer says.

“We’re desperate to be reconnected with other humans so charitable organizations, I would suggest, need to focus on how we continue to build connections even in the midst of this,” he says.

They’re trying, says Teresa Vasilopoulos, executive director of The WoodGreen Foundation that serves about 40,000 people in Greater Toronto with everything from senior support to homeless housing transition.

Charitable organizations are looking to connect with donors, as well as the populations they serve, says Ms. Vasilopoulos, who is also a director on the boards of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Canada and AFP Greater Toronto.

“I think it’s going to be a really hard winter for a lot of these vulnerable populations,” she says. “I think it’s an important time for people to give maybe like they never have before because I think there’s just going to be so much need.”

A sector report by the non-profit advocacy group Imagine Canada in May found one in five charities had already ceased or suspended operations. Nearly seven in 10 reported a “staggering” decrease in revenues, the report said, with an average decline of almost a third.

Many are relying on the holiday giving season, which begins in earnest with Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1, to keep the doors open.

From online cooking classes to virtual galas, non-profit organizations are trying to try to fill the gap left by the cancellation of in-person events and face-to-face fundraising.

WoodGreen will launch a Netflix-like monthly giving program called Subscription for Good on Giving Tuesday, aimed largely at Millennials.

Now in its eighth year, Giving Tuesday, on the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, is becoming an important date in the charity calendar. Last year, Canadians donated $22-million online on Giving Tuesday, according to GivingTuesday Canada.

“I think we are generous by world standards. When we look at countries by their average donation rates Canadians give quite a bit,” Dr. Aknin says.

In fact, on average 63.4 per cent of Canadians report donating to a charity in the previous month, according to the 2019 World Happiness report, making Canada the ninth most giving nation, though well behind Thailand, the most generous nation at 72.8 per cent.

“I think donation rates have dropped but the emotional rewards are still there,” she says. “This means people may have been missing out on a pretty reliable means of achieving some momentary happiness. We’ve been missing a way to perhaps help others and help ourselves at the same time.”


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