We’re all , familiar with the phrase “Give ’til it hurts.” Yet a recent scientific study shows that giving really feels good. The brain registers positive feelings not only when you give to another person, but can even do so when you witness giving from a source other than yourself. This finding dovetails nicely with the fundamental teaching of A Course in Miracles that giving is receiving, and the related teaching that when anyone gives a true gift of love, everyone benefits. In the Course’s words: “You are being blessed by every beneficent thought of any of your brothers anywhere” (T-5.In.3:1).
The study centered on an arena of giving that seems to “hurt” for just about everybody: giving money. It involved a group of nineteen female students at the University of Oregon (researchers would like to do follow-up studies using a broader population) who received MRI brain scans while working with a “charitable giving” computer program. They were each given one hundred dollars in real money, and were also told of a real food bank that needed funds. The computer then played out various options with their money. Sometimes the students were given the option of donating some of their money to the food bank. At other times, the computer automatically donated some of their money to the food bank without their consent. At various times the computer would also add extra money to either their account or the food bank’s account.
The study showed that most of the subjects experienced positive “warm glow” feelings (revealed by the brain scans) when they voluntarily gave to the food bank. Economists regard this voluntary giving as not wholly altruistic, because they speculate that the giver gives not wholly out of selflessness, but to make herself feel good. However, some subjects exhibited what economists call “pure altruism”: They felt that “warm glow” not just when they gave, but also when the computer took money from them to give to the food bank. They even felt better when the computer put additional money in the food bank account than they did when it put additional money in their own account. They cared more about money going to benefit others than money that benefited themselves.
Dr. Ulrich Mayr, one of the three researchers who created the study, found this result especially remarkable: “The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don’t respond only to what’s good for yourself. They also seem to be tracking what’s good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don’t have a say in what happens.” Presumably because of all these warm feelings, the subjects who displayed “pure altruism” were a lot more generous to the food bank: they gave twice as much as the subjects who only felt good when they gave voluntarily.
This study seems to provide evidence for a principle that the Course regards as a universal law: “To give and to receive are one in truth” (W-pI.108.Heading). In other words, whatever you give – whether it be an extension of loving kindness or a vicious attack – you yourself will receive in some form, whether tangible or simply an experience in your own mind. If we really let this idea sink in, we would have all the motivation in the world to give only things we really want to receive. To build this motivation, Workbook Lesson 108 has us offer various gifts to others so we may receive them. It has us repeat lines like “To everyone I offer quietness. To everyone I offer peace of mind. To everyone I offer gentleness” (W-pI.108.8:6-8), and “see how quickly” (W-pI.108.7:4) these gifts return to us.
The gifts offered in this lesson are intangible things – what we might call “gifts of the spirit.” Does this principle work with physical things like money, the gift item in the University of Oregon study? According to Workbook Lesson 187, it does. It works because of another basic principle of the Course: “Things but represent the thoughts that make them” (W-pI.187.2:3). Therefore, when we give a physical thing like money away, what we’re really giving is the thought behind it; as the saying goes, “It’s the thought that counts.” If we give something away with truly loving intent, what we’re really giving is the thought of love. (Obviously, this works on the negative side as well; when we give something away with hateful intent—for instance, as a way to manipulate someone—what we’re really giving is the thought of hate.) If we’re giving the thought of love, what we’ll receive back is a thought of love. Moreover, we will get that thought in a form that is more beneficial to us than the form we gave up: “And both [giver and receiver] must gain in this exchange, for each will have the thought in form most helpful to him” (W-pI.187.5:7). It is the ultimate win-win.
All of this sounds a lot like the “impure” altruism the economists describe, but in the Course’s view, there is nothing impure about it. The Course’s version of selflessness does not require that we not benefit from our gift; instead, selfless acts are those which benefit everyone including ourselves. This is rooted in the idea that rather than having separate selves that can independently gain at each other’s expense, we truly have only one Self that we share. Therefore, when we give a gift, “No one can lose, and everyone must benefit” (T-25.IX.10:3). A true gift to anyone is a gift to all, including the giver.
Because this is so, “pure altruism”— experiencing positive feelings whenever anyone receives a gift from any source—is part of the Course’s picture of giving as well. It is behind the Course’s statement that “to teach is to demonstrate” (M-In.2:1): When we demonstrate love through our giving, others see it, feel good, and are motivated to follow our example. One of the most beautiful passages on the theme of feeling good whenever anyone receives a gift is from Workbook Lesson 315, “All gifts my brothers give belong to me”:
Each day a thousand treasures come to me with every passing moment. I am blessed with gifts throughout the day, in value far beyond all things of which I can conceive. A brother smiles upon another, and my heart is gladdened. Someone speaks a word of gratitude or mercy, and my mind receives this gift and takes it as its own. And everyone who finds the way to God becomes my savior, pointing out the way to me, and giving me his certainty that what he learned is surely mine as well. (W-pII.315.1:1-5)
Thus, from the Course’s standpoint, all of us have the potential demonstrated by the “pure altruists” in the study. I think we see this potential realized to some extent every day. Who among us is not inspired by witnessing acts of giving, be they the well-publicized generosity of people like Mother Teresa and Bill Gates, or the small acts of kindness we see from ordinary people daily? It is our nature to be givers, and to feel blessed when any of our brothers give. Therefore, let’s really take in the treasures that come to us every time a smile or a word of gratitude or mercy is given. Let’s allow these treasures to awaken the extravagant giver in us. Let’s give ’til it feels good.