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The Science of Generosity

   /   Dec 7th, 2010International, News

A study published last month by Harvard Business School looked at the emotional benefits of generosity, and found that  — across cultures — people are happiest when they are giving.

“In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts,” the authors wrote.

Decades of research (dating back to Darwin) have suggested that altruism allowed humans to evolve and survive in groups, cooperating for mutual survival. The new study argues that this is not an isolated phenomenon, but may be universal.

The study states: “This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness.”

Across countries and through various income levels, researchers found that subjects who spent more money on gifts and charitable donations described themselves as happier. The benefits of prosocial spending were not necessarily related to how often or how much a person gave, but were strongly tied to the fact that a person gave something. Researchers asked university students in Uganda and Canada to reflect on times they spent money on themselves or on others, in order to compare across countries with different income and cultural norms. Participants asked to recall money spent on others, rather than themselves, on the whole reported significantly higher “subjective well-being.”

What do you think about these findings? Do they fit your experience?

12 Responses

  1. [...] The Science of Generosity | Dowser Studies continue to show that contrary to the core assumption of economics that self-interest is the driver of human behavior, people are actually happiest when they give. (tags: philanthropy) [...]

  2. I completely agree with the idea of well-being associated with generosity. From my own experience I can recall an instance. In jun 2009 I bought myself a brand new MacBook after suffering with a previous laptop for five years (I choose not to share its make). However I still feel like all the happiness combined from using it falls severely short when compared to what I felt during the one hour that I blew bubbles for a 1yr old child (this Sunday). My theory is that once we start to spend too much time on ourselves or our needs we begin to realize that what(/who)ever we have (or will have) can never be enough – there is always a desire for more, for perfection. Whereas when we give to other people, we (hopefully) observe that they are happy and we only learn of their current state of mind. We have no idea how relatively happy they are, we just know that they are happy and then there is no resulting desire for more or for perfection (unless they speak their mind – which is why this is a fool-proof method with complete strangers!).

    (Of course we can choose to make things better for people but then again, the same theory I mentioned above would apply…)

    This might not work after a while and may not be true for other people but so far it has worked for me..

    • angela sands says:

      Yes I agree too and the Dalai Lama keeps saying this about altruism. There is a sneaking thought though that happy people give… Is this addressed in the research?

  3. Ruth Jost says:

    How I found a life of joy in giving:

    In 1982 I married a man with a history of radical generosity. We set up a simple giving system in which we each had an allowance of a hundred or so dollars a month to cover all personal spending like clothing, books, eating out. We did a household budget for joint expenses like housing, insurance, cars, groceries, and savings. Everything else was God’s. (We’re Christians.)

    This is where the fun comes in. We can write some nice checks for our church and others working for justice and the poor. (We’ve both been poverty lawyers.) It’s addictive stuff, and I can see why supporting favorite charities is a big pleasure of the wealthy. We aren’t big donors, but the joy of giving is real, and talking over our passions and priorities is a huge uniting force in our life together.

    The pleasure part is important because it spurred me to make immediate and permanent no-brainer changes, like packing my lunch daily and shopping at consignment, thrift, or outlet stores for clothes and shoes – my main shopaholic weakness. We each get our allowance in cash at the beginning of the month, so when it’s spent, it’s spent.

    The genius of this system is that by controlling the nickels and dimes of daily life we free up money to give. With our spending basically fixed, our raises always mean we can give more away.

    We’ve worked our way up to giving away a double tithe, then 25 percent. It’s like having a secret pass. I’m amazed to realize we can give much more easily than people around us with comparable incomes who are spending willy-nilly and finding, naturally, there is usually little left over to give.

    After 29 years the shared pleasure is still going strong. There’s a huge bonus to our marriage because we aren’t in each other’s hair over our different personal spending habits. We each have our allowance — end of debate.

    We often hear money is a big stressor in marriages, but we have found that a good giving system is one of the most satisfying joint projects we’ve ever launched. Instead of dividing over different priorities, we pull together on money toward our deepest shared commitments. And we have fun doing it.

    • Tracy Ekstrand says:

      God bless you both (and this from an atheist). You have managed not only to do great deeds but to write an inspiring AND practical article on how others can do the same. All the best to you.

    • angela sands says:

      Fantastic model!!

  4. scigencomm says:

    To learn more about the science of generosity, visit the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame: There you’ll find news and information about the 14 generosity research projects the initiative is supporting and conducting.

  5. Fernando says:

    I agree with the positive emotional implications of be generous, but: is not in your own benefit to be happy? I mean, if been generous make oneself happier then is an act of self interest, not philantropy.

  6. Our approach to making the world a better and safer place to live counts on people self-identifying, Opting-In, to be of service when needed. In other words, planning in advance to give. Planning in advance when and how and where you will be available when call on to provide assistance as a SafeTPathFinder

  7. [...] material possessions, as well as one’s time and kindness, has a transformative effect on the giver, as well as setting into motion a chain reaction of giving by others.  Our simple and honest [...]

  8. [...] via The Science of Generosity | Dowser. [...]

  9. [...] blessed to give than to receive. Happiness researchers definitely agree on the benefits of giving. Study after study shows that doing acts of kindness for others elicits feelings of happiness and even [...]