By: Kristin A. R. Osborn & Dr. Maneet Bhatia, Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School) — Contributing Editors to The THX Co. Journal

Are people inherently self-interested or altruistic?

The answer based on scientific research is, we are both.

Humans want to grow, excel, succeed and survive. This means in many cases, we need to be competitive, and battle over limited resources and opportunities. However, what research continues to demonstrate is, despite these natural tendencies, humans are driven towards being altruistic and giving.

Neuroscientist, Dr. Jordan Grafman, has investigated the origins of empathy and generosity in the human brain by conducting fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of subjects’ brains while they had an option to donate or not donate to charity. fMRI scans measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. When we carry out certain tasks, different areas of the brain become active and engaged.

What did he find?

Interestingly, in this study, donating to a charity (being generous), triggered activity in the same parts of the brain that light up when we crave certain foods or engage in sex.

In other words: we are hard wired to be generous and giving — AND it feels good too.

In the field of psychology, we refer to one’s ability to give and receive as ‘Receptive Capacity.’ Receptive Capacity measures a person’s ability to provide and receive caring from others, to experience both positive and negative emotions in a healthy manner, to feel empathy and perceive others with accuracy and compassion while also seeing oneself as worthy of care.

It is this Receptive Capacity that mental health professionals’ work to instill and cultivate in their patients. Research shows that when patients are able to build this capacity, it strengthens their compassion for themselves and others, reduces maladaptive and negative emotional reactions, and increases adaptive and healthy expression of emotions and their overall emotional well-being.

Ultimately, people are able to live more authentic, genuine, and purposeful lives (e.g., Bhatia, et al, 2009; McCullough et al, 2003).

In all industries, be it health, corporate, or education, management leaders are implementing research from organizational psychology that identifies “giving” as an important and rewarding component in developing group cohesion and productivity. Whether giving your time to help a student learn new concepts and skills, or sharing ‘war stories’ of building your own company with aspiring entrepreneurs, it is in these moments of giving where we reap lasting benefits.

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