Generosity can do wonders for happiness levels—so much so that scientists have spent a good deal of time trying to understand what makes some people more generous than others. Research at UC Berkeley has revealed multiple factors.

Among them: the mood-boosting effects of giving, feelings of empathy or compassion, and personality traits like humility and agreeableness. Now new research at UC Berkeley has found that something as simple as sleep can affect the inclination to help others.

How Sleep Can Affect Our Desire to Help Others

On its surface, the link between sleep and our desire to help others may not be that surprising. After all, who doesn’t feel grumpy after a night spent tossing and turning? (Maybe Scrooge’s real problem was that the poor guy just couldn’t get some shuteye.)

Poor Sleep on a Brain Scan

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the question of sleep’s impact on generosity turns up an interesting discovery about brain mechanics, and specifically a network of areas called “the theory of mind.” It’s active when we’re engaged in “prosocial” behaviors, the researchers said, like extending empathy or helping someone in need. In the absence of sleep, though, this same brain network slowed down, and its activity was “impaired.” The researchers were able to see this neurological event take place on brain scans, in the first of three studies exploring sleep and generosity.

Measuring Generosity in the Sleep-Deprived

In a second study, the researchers first looked at test subjects’ sleep over a period of several nights and then assessed their willingness to be generous. Some examples included “holding an elevator door for someone else, volunteering, or helping an injured stranger on the street.” Strikingly, poor sleep wasn’t just an influencing factor—it was a significant predictor of more selfish behaviors, the researchers concluded.

Charitable Giving After Daylight Saving Time

A third and final portion of the study provided the big picture, confirming these results. This time, working with a database of three million charitable donations in the years 2001-2016, the researchers asked whether charitable giving decreased after a change to Daylight Saving Time; and, indeed, there was a 10 percent drop in donations (which also did not occur in regions of the country that did not change their clocks). In other words, even just one hour of sleep deprivation has “a very measurable and very real impact on people’s generosity.”

Plenty of Sleep and Other Ways to Become More Generous

This finding is further good news that we don’t have to be born generous to be generous and experience the feel-good effects. We can become more generous and, in turn, happier. That’s a relief in times of doubt. It means we can improve how we feel—and can make positive changes that increase daily life satisfaction without heroic levels of self-discipline.

Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting more sleep each night may be a relatively easy way to become more generous, but certainly not the only way. If ever in need of creative inspiration for practicing random acts of kindness, there’s Google. Many of the ideas that turn up don’t require money, like “20 free and easy ways to be more generous today,” in an article in Inc..

This is beautiful: Just thinking about doing something generous has feel-good effects, a 2017 article in Time reported, citing a study in the journal Nature Communications. That adds new meaning to the familiar saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Lessons from 25 Years of Clinical Practice

In 25 years of clinical practice, it is evident what we all know from day-to-day life. When we are stressed, have poor sleep, and feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to be positive and easygoing throughout our day. We tend to become more irritable and may have “short fuse” moments from being run down.

It’s interesting to note that attitude in the mornings when we wake up can affect our day. People who acknowledge they slept good report feeling better than those who think they did not sleep well. Making sleep a priority by following a good sleep regimen and being consistent with it makes us feel better and improves our functioning. It’s not hard to imagine that this would translate into a better day, one where we are better able to let our positive emotions be more visible and are attuned to others in a more generous and open way.

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About the Author: Dr. Beau A. Nelson
Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health. He is a nationally sought-out expert on issues relating to mental health and substance abuse, having contributed to numerous publications and, more recently, the Netflix documentary series "Addiction Revealed," which will air an interview with him this fall.

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