'The world is made up of givers and takers, and the takers lose every time,’ says Ellen Langer, psychology professor at Harvard. ‘When you give – a gift, a compliment, an offer of help – you can feel generous, competent, connected, empowered, in control.’
Studies monitoring the brain activity of volunteers as they received cash rewards on a computer game, and gave them away, found that donating their winnings produced higher levels of the feel-good hormones dopamine and oxytocin. Jordan Grafman, who led the studies, concluded ‘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’.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the receiving position, some of us may feel needy, incompetent, weakened, exposed, vulnerable. ‘You may fear showing need, and feel wary of accepting something on someone else’s terms,’ says Langer, author of Counter Clockwise. ‘Are you relinquishing control and accepting some kind of quid pro quo? What are you committing to?’
When you accept an invitation to dinner with your neighbours, you are implicitly agreeing to reciprocate. Does this make you anxious or guarded? When a friend offers to babysit while you and your partner have a much needed night out, you are placing yourself in her debt, which may make you feel resentful. If a parent helps you meet the mortgage on a bad month, you take on the role of grateful, rescued child, which many people find uncomfortable.
Mixed in with disagreeable feelings of debt and duty is, for some of us, a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, says Tim Laurence, director of the Hoffman Institute and author of You Can Change Your Life. ‘It can be down to a deficiency of love,’ he says. ‘If, during your childhood, affection, attention and praise were thin on the ground, if you didn’t receive enough love, then you don’t learn to receive well. When someone compliments you, it may be so far from the image you carry of yourself that your immediate response is, “Why would they say that to me?” If someone buys you a present, you may think, “I don’t deserve it”.’
Yet learning to receive with grace is important – even fundamental. ‘Essentially, we’re here to learn about the giving and receiving of love,’ says Laurence. ‘We do this in hundreds of ways, including the giving and receiving of support, appreciation, affection, compliments, gifts. Just as we take in breath with no conscious effort, then breathe out again, we should learn to receive and give back with no explanation needed.’
For Langer, it’s about connecting. ‘When someone mindfully gives you a gift, or an offer of support, you’ll feel seen, cared for and known for who you are,’ she says.
To those who feel uncomfortable receiving, Laurence recommends identifying the reason. (‘What would I be committing to?’ ‘I don’t see myself like that.’) If you dread the exchange of gifts at Christmas, examine why. Were past Christmases a disappointment? Perhaps gifts never reflected who you were.
When reluctant to accept an offer or invitation, Langer suggests asking yourself, ‘What is the worst that can happen if I do accept?’ Are you worried you haven’t given enough? Does it bother you that you aren’t willing to give as much? If you fear you’ll be unable to reciprocate, find a sensitive way to explain this. If you are happier as one of life’s givers, reframe your thoughts. Giving and getting are part of one circuit.
‘Receiving with grace isn’t about taking,’ says Langer. ‘You should see it as offering someone else the joy of giving.’