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Five ways to wellbeing, part 5: Give

Written by Koen Smets (6 Dec 2014)

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. — Aesop

Neuroscience is finding more and more evidence that mutual collaboration is strongly associated with the activation in the brain of areas that are connected with rewards. This helps explain why we humans are such social creatures. Helping, sharing, giving – these are characteristics of just about every society on the planet, precisely because they contribute to our happiness.

We cannot help, share or give on our own: we need other people to do these things. We make sacrifices, we give something up in order to make things better for someone else – and that gives meaning to our existence, and enhances our sense of self-worth.

Like most of the rest of our species, it makes me happy when I give someone a gift or help them with something. But I used to have a bit of a simplistic view of helping and giving, and I thought opportunities for doing so don't present themselves that frequently. I mean, you can't seriously give people presents every week, or help an elderly person cross the street every day, and how often do your friends really need help moving house? But I realized giving doesn't need to be big and momentous.

One morning, as a complete stranger smiled at me when I was buying a coffee on the way to work, I understood that this was actually a like small gift. As I smiled back, I knew it was true: smiles are small presents – they don't cost anything, and yet they make us feel good – both as the smiler and as the smilee. :-)

And I discovered that there are other interactions that are giving in a very real sense, like thanking someone for answering my question, for giving me a tip on something, or for their help or support. But what I noticed is that the pleasure of getting a word of thanks was so much higher when I did it in a real conscious way – not just routinely, but fully aware of exactly what I was thankful for and whom I was thankful to.

Like is the case for many people, a lot of my communication with others goes via email, including asking people for input, advice, favours or simply work-related requests. So I find a neat way of looking for an opportunity to genuinely thank someone is to look through my inbox. Has a colleague or a friend recently done for you or sent to me? Is it worth a small word of thanks? It's as simple as clicking the 'reply' button and writing a little note. And I try to make it specific and let my friend or colleague know what it meant to me.

I found it quite remarkable how easily this can become a habit, without losing its significance - and it’s remarkable how contagious it can become in a place of work: if people see others giving thanks, they'll be inspired to do the same.

Thank you for reading this, and for considering joining me in giving thanks a little more often!