Rick Hanson PhD
Oct 23, 2013
What do you give?
When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.
When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).
Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities. This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together. Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.
Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines. Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.
When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.
Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.
Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.
Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.
Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.
Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.
Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.