The Joy of Giving

Posted on June 25, 2016

For experimental psychologists, a cause and effect relationship, no matter how plausible and beautiful it sounds, cannot be accepted unless it is confirmed by means of experimentation. To test whether giving contributes to our well-being and whether giving is more joyous than receiving, Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues conducted an experiment at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

They randomly selected a group of undergraduate students and gave them either $5 or $20. Participants’ level of happiness was measured. Then half of the participants were asked to use the money they received to get something for themselves. The other half were asked to use the money to get something for someone else. Participants’ level of happiness was measured later, after they spent the money.

The group who spent the money on someone else reported a higher increase in their level of happiness than the group who spent the money on themselves. Dunn and colleague Michael Norton conducted similar experiments in different contexts and in different parts of the world. They consistently found that giving increases happiness more than receiving. Their results were summarized in their book Happy Money: The Science of Happy Spending.

Spending money on others is not the only way of giving. The practice of caring also has been found to increase levels of well-being and decrease symptoms of depression. For example, in an experiment in northern Italian homes for the elderly, residents who were given a canary to take care of had decreased symptoms of depression. Those who were not taking care of a pet did not.

We are born with a survival instinct. We are also born with an altruistic instinct, which makes us find joy in helping others and in contributing to their survival and flourishing. While on the surface the two instincts seem to be leading us in opposite directions, the altruistic instinct actually emerged from the survival instinct. Our ancestors hunted in groups, built shelters in groups, and escaped predators in groups. Collaboration was their main strength and in order to collaborate they had to help one another.

Post (2005) argued that the drive for help gave our ancestors an advantage: “Altruistic behavior within groups confers a competitive advantage against other groups.” In groups where individuals enjoy helping each other, collaboration is more likely to develop. Consequently, the group is likely to function better. Altruism is in the genes we have inherited from our collaborative ancestors.

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Source material from PsychCentral

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