One of the real problems of early winter lies in the spread of contagious diseases, especially the flu. Closed spaces, colder temperature, lower humidity, runny noses and the rest of what comes with the start of winter brings some nasty illnesses to disrupt the holiday season.

There is one other contagious condition that also spreads like wildfire every year, generosity. Yes, generosity is contagious; modern science agrees. The best part of this epidemic is that it isn’t limited to the holiday season and it isn’t limited to traditional gifts; it applies to acts of kindness and service and even to being neighborly.

In the area of psychology, social psychologist Adam Grant tells of a hospital with different units and floors and with different staffing. In units where one nurse was assigned to share and help other nurses, helping became a standard practice, part of the culture of the unit. Without that “seed” giver or helper, helping was far less common. See the TED Talk, Are you a giver or a taker?, where he speaks of this. See also Contagious Generosity by Chris Willard and Jim Sheppard.

This example is not at all a unique or even unusual response to acts of kindness and generosity in the workplace. Margaret Cho said, “Sometimes when we are generous in small, barely detectable ways it can change someone else’s life forever.” At the Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison, they are trying to prove Cho to be correct. Richard W. Davidson, a neuroscientist, is attempting an experiment in gratitude by creating a Gratitude Wall, intended to promote positive connection. His experience and expertise indicates they will be successful.

A summary of the results of a similar study reported in the journal Emotion is here. The researchers chose a Spanish workplace and had a group of givers, a group of receivers, and even a control group to more scientifically measure results. The result was astonishing. Receivers became happier after only 2 months. Givers became less depressed and more satisfied with their lives and jobs. Best of all, the positive acts of the giver group inspired others to act with receivers paying their acts of kindness forward with 278% more positive behaviors than in the control group. 

This can prove true socially in communities, even online social activity, as well as in the workplace.

James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, published the results of their study, Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networksin the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Fowler and Christakis used several measures to make their study as meaningful as possible. They recruited volunteers who did not know one another, and they made sure that all persons interacted with every other participant only once. That eliminated the possibility that the generosity they observed might be the result of familiarity. Then, they had the participants play in activities that promoted cooperation and sharing. They found that when one person behaves generously, observers then behave generously later. Participants who received money in an earlier game or activity were more likely to give money in a later game. Those who had not received, gave and shared less.

They found that altruism could spread in a way I would call contagious, the mauthors call it “cascading’ — from person to person to person to person. “As a result, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met.”

Giving causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and a social connection to others. Laboratory studies by Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, found that exposure to a dose of oxytocin will cause people to give more generously and to feel more empathy towards others. The effects of the dose can last as long as two hours. Again, it becomes contagious as the givers affected by the oxytocin may start a “virtuous circle, where one person’s generous behavior triggers another’s,” says Zak. See The Trust Molecule. See also Trust Increases Generosity in Humans by Zak, Stanton and Ahmadi. 

So, if you want to start a real epidemic of generosity this season, be generous. Watch it spread to the community. Sir Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Actually, “givers” may make many lives by even small acts of generosity. Try it.

If you would like to learn more, call us at The Idlewild Foundation at (813) 264-8713. We believe in and promote the radical generosity that has benefited us through the sacrifice freely given to us by God through Jesus.

Romans 8:33
32     He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

About the Author

John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus.  He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016.  He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.