Psychological Chocolate: Why Giving Feels So Good

By Lisa Smith Molinari
NSNC President

Does this sound familiar?

You’ve finally arrived home after numerous trips to the local strip malls to buy the latest toy for your niece, twinkle lights for the porch, ear warmers for your spouse, and supplies to bake 12 dozen pecan tarts for the neighborhood cookie exchange. Then, it dawns on you.

I forgot the butter.

For the second time today, you approach the bell ringer outside the supermarket. You want to tell the sweet little old man freezing his bippy off in the name of the needy, “I gave earlier today,” but you know darned well he won’t remember and will think you’re a cheapskate. So you sort through the gum wrappers and bobby pins to find a few singles in your purse.

But, you realize that all you have is a ten-spot. With trembling hands you fork over the ten-dollar bill you were hoping to use for a Vente Skinny Peppermint Mocha Latte with extra sprinkles on the way home. With your hand over the red kettle, you loudly clear your throat, wanting everyone to notice and think, “Wow, she gave ten whole dollars.”

“Thank you for your kindness,” the old man says, and you walk into the store feeling good about your decision to feed the poor rather than slurp another overpriced coffee. In fact, you’re so jazzed about your generosity, you buy a few canned goods to put in the food bank collection. And while you’re at it, you grab a wiffle ball set to put in the Toys for Tots box, too.

With a sanctimonious flip of your wrist, you zip your debit card through the reader just as the cashier asks for the second time today, “Would you like to give a dollar to the Orphaned Kittens Guild?”  Seven impatient customers are in line behind you. The baggers are waiting for your answer. The cashier is staring blankly into your eyes.  

“Sure,” you mumble, not certain if you’re a Good Samaritan or just a sucker.

Let’s face it, the holidays can feel like a month-long shakedown. Not only do we drain our bank accounts buying gifts for everyone from grandma to the school janitor, we’re also hit up by every charity under the North Star.

Charitable giving is on the rise, and has been (every year except 2008) since 1976. Interestingly, according to the National Retail Federation, consumer holiday spending has risen every year, too. This parallel increase is no surprise, considering that research shows a correlation between personal consumption and charitable-giving trends.

This begs the question: Do we give more to charity during the holidays just to alleviate our retail-spending guilt? Are we just looking for the tax break at the end of each year? Are we generous or just selfish?

Although the reasons for charitable giving are complex and include less-benevolent motivations such as guilt, influence, image, and peer pressure, it turns out that most individuals give for one good reason: Because it feels good.

In a National Institutes of Health study using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers found generosity lights up the same areas of the brain as food and sex. Generosity has been called “psychological chocolate,” found to induce feelings of euphoria, increased energy, reduced stress, increased longevity, and the production of happiness hormones like dopamine.

It’s a good thing, because nonprofit organizations rely on donations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, when they bring in the vast majority of their income. Nonprofits could not survive without this influx of cash, so it is important that donors give generously during before the year ends.

No matter what the reason, let’s all dig deep and give more during this holiday season. Give because it helps nonprofits carry out their charitable missions. Give because it supports your community. Give because it sets a good example for your children. Give because you’ll get the bumper sticker. Give so you’ll look good on social media. Give because they’ll list your name as a donor. Give because you’ll get the tax break.

Give just because it feels good.

Craving a morsel of psychological chocolate? Give to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation’s Campaign to Promote Diversity of Perspective among columnists and bloggers. All proceeds will support training sessions at NSNC’s Annual Conference, June 7-10, 2018, in Cincinnati, Ohio. And yes, it’s tax-deductible.

Donate now.


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