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The Sharing Experiment: Why Giving Makes Us Happy

How a simple experiment shows that sharing is part of human nature



Two children are sitting at a table. It is revealed that one child was given a sandwich, and the other child was not. Immediately the child who has the sandwich shares it with a partner. Though this may seem a worthless experiment, in many ways it’s one of the most meaningful. It shows that children are willing to share with those who have nothing, and research has shown that sharing actually has a positive chemical reaction within the brain – namely oxytocin (the love chemical).

Human nature is defined as greedy, malicious, and conniving by people who want to control what we do. We’re told that without a strong central power, human’s will hoard, kill, and keep everything to ourselves. In this cute example called “The Sharing Experiment,” you will see the joy in people when we have the opportunity to share.

Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, studies the effects of oxytocin in social exchanges. His lab has found that when people share and experience gratitude, or any sense of connection, their brains will release the hormone oxytocin. Though more commonly associated with breast-feeding, oxytocin is also known to relieve stress, improve immune function, and foster trust in human interactions, all of which contribute to greater well-being and happiness.

In laboratory studies, Zak has found that a dose of oxytocin will cause people to give more generously and to feel more empathic towards others they come across, with “symptoms” lasting up to two hours. And those people on an “oxytocin high” can potentially jumpstart a “virtuous circle, where one person’s generous behavior triggers another’s,” he says. Surprisingly, even when sharing involves an exchange of money or where communication takes place over the internet––a common situation with commercial sharing sites––oxytocin is still released. In one study, Zak found that 10 minutes of tweeting induced a spike in oxytocin and a reduction of stress hormones in his subject, a reaction similar to what one might experience during in-person communication. Many sharing sites, he argues, do double duty, connecting people on-line and then having them meet in person to exchange goods or services. “This suggests why sharing is so ‘sticky,’” says Zak. “It makes us feel good in two ways.”

The urge to cooperate goes way back in human evolution, according to primatologist Franz de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy. Early humans banded together for hunting, collecting food, caring for offspring, and warning off predators, which increased their chances of survival. Even Charles Darwin, often credited with promoting “a survival of the fittest” worldview, wrote extensively on the benefits of cooperation in the animal world. We humans care about the welfare of others almost from the day we are born. As Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley writes in The Philosophical Baby, researchers have found that even children as young as 14 months old will try to lend a hand to an adult without being prompted if they perceive that the adult needs help. Sharing and cooperation are natural aspects of human behavior, and the more we engage in them, the more we are being congruent with our biological inheritance.

So, if you want to have better connections with others and contribute toward a better society, start sharing what you can with others. You might find yourself benefiting from a big dose of happiness in the process.