Sunday, December 22, 2013

Make your generosity matter this Christmas.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year because I love buying presents for the people who are important to me. In fact, I begin actively spying on my family and friends in July so that I always have the opportunity to find exactly the right gift that will bring them the most joy on Christmas morning. Given that Christmas is upon us, and my personal passion for gift-giving, I thought it appropriate to share what psychology researchers have found on how giving to others, or generosity, impacts our health and happiness throughout our lives.

First of all, positive psychologists have studied generosity at length for at least a decade. For example, there are several studies showing that giving to others and engaging in random acts of kindness will increase your subjective well-being, or happiness. In fact, helping others seems to benefit the giver even more than the receiver. What we don’t know is how helping others increases our well-being. Are we simply biologically designed to put others before ourselves because that’s how humans were able to evolve, raise families, and build civilization? Or, do we simply get a rush from that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from helping others?

In a recent study published by Dr. Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University and colleagues, they conducted two experiments to determine what aspects of generosity cause increases in happiness. In the first study, they recruited 120 adults to a study on “charitable appeals” where the participants completed surveys about their happiness in life. The participants were then given $10 and asked to put it away. Half of the participants were randomly asked to consider donating to UNICEF after reading this script:

“Before you make a decision about donating though, you should know that your donation will be given to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which is a charitable foundation whose work is carried out in 190 countries around the world. The heart of UNICEF’s work is in the field with some 10,000 employees working on international priorities such as child protection, survival and development.”

The other half of the participants were also asked to consider donating to UNICEF, although their script read:

“Before you make a decision about donating though, you should know that your donation will be given to Spread the Net, a subsidiary branch of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). This cause was initiated to raise awareness and help wipe out death by malaria. Every $10 collected purchases a bed net for a child in Africa – a simple, effective, inexpensive way to make a BIG difference – saving lives, one net at a time”

Dr. Aknin argues that these two scripts differ in their potential for “prosocial impact”, or the awareness of the impact you have on the life of another person. While both scripts highlight the purpose of UNICEF as helping sick children around the world, the second script highlights the role the reader’s donation would specifically play in impacting the life of a child.

After deciding whether to make a donation or not, the participants completed a second set of surveys about their mood and happiness.

Dr. Aknin and her colleagues found that there was no difference in the amount of money donated between the two groups. This is interesting to me because previous research has argued that there is such a thing as “identifiable victim effect.” Identifiable victim effect is where people are more likely to donate to charities when they have seen, met, or know something about the people who need their help. According to this theory, the children at risk for malaria are identified more so than all of the other children UNICEF helps, so more people in that condition should have donated more of their money. Instead, the average donation per person across each of these conditions was $5.

They also found that individuals who donated to Spread the Net experienced significant increases in happiness, while their peers who donated the same amount to the UNICEF emergency fund did not. They interpreted these results as evidence that the emotional benefits of generosity occur only when the giver is aware of the impact their generosity had on other lives. But how can we be sure that knowing the impact on these kids’ lives was the cause of the increase in happiness? Could it have been something else? For example, could it have been something simple like knowing the specific use of the money? Or caring more about disease prevention than disaster relief?

Dr. Aknin was concerned about the same things, so she and her colleagues conducted a 2nd study to test the causal association between prosocial impact and increases in an individual’s happiness.

To do this, they recruited 181 adults from all over North America. These participants were randomized to 1 of 3 conditions: personal, prosocial boost, prosocial blocked. In each condition they were asked to recall the last time they spent $20 on either themselves (personal), another person in a way that made an impact in their lives (prosocial boost), or another person in a way that the purchase did not make an impact on that person (prosocial blocked). After describing this event, the participant completed surveys on their present mood and their happiness. They then compared reports of emotional well-being and happiness across these three conditions.

They found that participants who were randomized to vividly recall a time that they made an impact on another person reported greater emotional well-being and happiness. In comparison, the participants who were randomized to the personal and prosocial blocked conditions showed no differences in their reports of happiness or emotional well-being.

So what can you do to capitalize on this year’s season of giving? It may be too late for this, but if you are still struggling to find the right gift for a special person in your life, think of the impact you want to have on their life and find a gift that fulfills that purpose. Also, give your gifts in person. Nothing beats the look on a person’s face when they open a carefully selected gift that says, “I’ve been paying attention.” More importantly, many of us will have the opportunity to receive gifts this holiday season which means an opportunity to increase the happiness of our family and friends. Show your gratitude by explaining how each gift you get will impact your life in a positive way. A simple “Thx” via text message just won’t cut it. Remind them of this impact over time.

For example, I would like to personally express my gratitude to all of my ScienceForWomen.org readers. We now have thousands of readers from all over the world. Your passion for knowledge and appreciation for scientific approaches to understanding yourselves and others are what keep me reading and writing each week. Some of you have emailed to let me know that you adopted a puppy after this article. Others of you have made important decisions to seek help after articles like this one and this one. Even more of you have used these articles to show your feelings for others through articles like this. You all have made me feel that I have impacted your lives, and that I can continue to do so by sharing one study at a time. Thank you & Happy Christmas!

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the emotional benefits of generosity all come back to showing your gratitude, and helping those around us understand that they make a difference in our lives. I won’t belabor the point since I’ve discussed gratitude before (Click here to read more articles from ScienceForWomen.org on gratitude). If you’re interested in more research on how generosity helps the generous, or to make your generosity more impactful for others, I recommend checking out Stephen Post’s new book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping


Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Whillans, A. V., Grant, A. M., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Making a difference matters: Impact unlocks the emotional benefits of prosocial spending. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

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