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The Art of Receiving

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Giving is better, so why bother?

In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha says, “Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Qu’ran (3:92) declares, “Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.” And the New Testament (Acts 20:35) makes clear, “It’s better to give than to receive.” Extolling giving has become conventional wisdom and a moral touchstone around the world. No wonder we don’t value receiving. Who wants to embrace the lesser part?

Even science seems to bear out this lesson. Jordan Grafman, a senior ­investigator specializing in cognitive neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Washington, D.C., led a team that monitored the brain activity of volunteers while they played computer games in which they could win cash rewards and donate the proceeds to charity. Both receiving money and giving it away increased levels of dopamine, a hormone related to ­feeling good. But giving away money caused more activity, and released oxytocin, ­another “feel good” hormone associated with emotional closeness. The prefrontal cortex, an area involved in moral reasoning, was also activated when giving included a ­sacrifice of one’s own resources. The study led Grafman to conclude, “It definitely seems like you’re going to get more pleasure, if these brain activations can be any guide, when you’re giving than when you’re simply receiving.”

The study suggests that giving is hardwired into our brains, making us feel good about doing good. But does that mean it’s really better than receiving?

Related: Health Benefits of Kindness

The price of receiving

Many of us instinctively resist receiving because we sense the power dynamics involved, which reduce the receiver to the weaker position. We all know how it feels when someone gives us advice for “our sake” and we know it’s to establish his or her own wisdom. We don’t take the advice, because we don’t want to confirm our inferiority. Harvard University Professor Ellen Langer puts such power dynamics to good use. “Receiving empowers the giver,” she says. “That’s why I advise parents to let their kids buy them gifts. When they receive them, it can make the children feel confident and good about themselves.”

Such dynamics might be acceptable in relationships of love and trust, like between parents and children, but they can make us uneasy in other contexts. A friend of mine, Barbara, worked at an advertising firm for five years before she was laid off. She chose not to receive unemployment because of the stigma. She had grown up in an upper-middle-class family in New England that had strong Puritan roots. For her, as for anyone influenced by Puritan values, needing help carried the hidden implication that she hadn’t worked hard enough. “Being on unemployment just made me feel like I had failed as an adult,” she remembers. “I felt ashamed at needing help.”

While shame at receiving government assistance might be less prevalent in European countries, where the social welfare system is generally accepted as every citizen’s right, the stigma attached to needing help is often a major stumbling block to accepting what’s given and putting it to good use. This is true in Western cultures, especially in the U.S., which so highly values achievement and earning that when Americans are given something unexpected or unearned they feel guilty.

Guilt is one way our conscience responds to situations in which we feel we don’t deserve the good things that come to us. “Sudden wealth syndrome” is the name attributed to a group of symptoms—including guilt, anxiety, sleep disorders and fear of losing control—that can disturb those who win the lottery, inherit wealth or bring in huge rewards from financial investment. “People who inherit large sums of money often feel a disparity between who they are and what they are being given,” says Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in California, which addresses the psychological opportunities and challenges that come with great wealth. “Guilt is a way to address the emotional impact of this gap.”

Where does the guilt come from? “In the U.S., but also in tribal cultures, we have a basic belief system that we work for what we are given,” Goldbart explains. “If we are suddenly given to, without work ­involved or the appropriate degree of work, then our sense of self, our values and our world view—including our ideas about fairness—are threatened.” In these situations, Goldbart suggests it’s helpful to have “a flexible sense of self and a flexible world view. You’re just not going to be the same person afterward.”

To receive, we might need to leave behind the safety net of a work-equals-reward mentality. But this requires ­acknowledging the existence of outside forces, and allowing for the possibility that we never had to deserve what we’ve “earned” in the first place. And if there’s no ­deserving, it means some things, at least, are simply free.

Related: How to Let Go of Guilt

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.


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10:48AM PDT on Mar 13, 2011

Good article.

10:02PM PST on Dec 28, 2010


12:50PM PST on Dec 28, 2010

Carole, maybe the gift was never meant for you but for someone else. In that case, bless someone else with it.

5:20AM PST on Dec 28, 2010

an unexpected gift, no matter how innapropriate, is a joy to receive. However, I do feel hurt by gifts from family and friends that show little or no thought for my needs or preferences.

5:50PM PST on Dec 27, 2010

good post.

5:20PM PST on Dec 27, 2010

Giving presents at certain times of the year like Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving etc. is commercially driven. Nothing worse then receiving a present that one has no use for and eventually it ends up in landfill while the companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

8:22AM PST on Dec 27, 2010

Every Christmas, I am the recipient of a small pile of artificially scented, paraben filled, pthalate laden products. I try to put in in my mind to thank the giver for the generosity of the gift, not the content of the package (or the product). If you keep this in your mind as you thank them, your appreciation will come from the heart. Now if I could trick for the guilt I feel when I sell these items for 50 cents at a garage sale...

8:15AM PST on Dec 27, 2010

When I was a young man I was told by a very wise man and friend who was much older than I. Always accept a gift gracesouly and say thanks even if you hate it. you may always get rid of it later but you can never undo the harm of insulting a person that thought enough of you to give you a gift. and Always call a married woman by her last name Mrs, Miller or what ever it is unless the husband is present out of respect for her marrage. Things do get blured in the work place but in a public gathering of mixed people I still belive this is correct.

8:55PM PST on Dec 26, 2010

Good article... Thanks for posting. :D

7:34PM PST on Dec 26, 2010

Unless the gift in question is something that the giver had to KNOW you dislike, accept it graciously, for the thought that the giver was thinking of you, and wanted t please you. And sometimes, these objects do grow on you.

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