The Science of Generosity: Why Giving Makes You So Happy

When you were a kid, there was nothing better than receiving a gift. A wrapped present was a mystery story with an ending that was guaranteed to be excellent. You didn’t know exactly what was inside, but you knew it was for you, and it was probably something you wanted.

We all eventually reach an age at which giving gifts becomes just as thrilling as it was receiving them as a child.

You grow up to find that the joy of making someone happy is more powerful than you could have possibly imagined.

There’s something inexplicably satisfying in witnessing people unwrap a gift and respond with unadulterated amazement and happiness. You have made them smile, and that’s worth far more than money or any material item.

Simultaneously, we find great satisfaction in giving back to the world around us. Many of us are far more privileged than others, and when we become aware of that, we often have an innate desire to help the less fortunate.

After all, we can’t move forward as a species when such a significant number of people are left to suffer in the shadows.

As Winston Churchill once aptly stated:

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.

Indeed, it is through giving that we enrich and perpetuate both our own lives and the lives of others.

Money can’t buy happiness, unless you spend it on others.

Research has shown that giving makes us far happier than receiving. Thus, in a way, we are actually being both selfish and selfless by giving to others.

Numerous studies have shown that giving money to others or to charity will put a much bigger smile on your face than spending on yourself.

Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted one such study. Along with his colleagues, Norton questioned 632 Americans about their level of income and what they spent their money on. They were also asked to rate their own happiness.

North and his colleagues found that, regardless of income, those who spent money on others were decidedly happier than those who spent more on themselves.

Anne Frank once wrote:

No one has ever become poor by giving.

Tragically, Frank died when she was just a teenager, but she was wise beyond her years.

Simply put, enriching the lives of others makes us all wealthier.

True wealth is not acquired through earthly possessions, but by leading a fulfilling life. There is nothing more fulfilling than knowing you have made a palpable difference in the lives of other people.

Giving to others might take money out of your wallet, but it could mean the difference between life and death for some people. You never know how far a dollar might go. A tiny stone can create a massive ripple when thrown into water at the right moment.

At the same time, there is widespread evidence that we could all give much more, and that we need to be more careful about how we give.

In other words, don’t just give because it feels good. Make sure your generosity actually has an impact.

Generosity makes us human, and keeps life going.

Humans are an inherently social species. We have survived and thrived because we take care of one another.

Generosity is, in part, a survival instinct. Even the simple act of sharing food or shelter with another person is an example of humanity’s intrinsic generosity. If we were an overwhelmingly selfish species, we would’ve gone extinct a long time ago.

By giving to one another, we have prolonged the survival of the human community.

We still have room for improvement, of course.

Many Americans likely believe that their government already gives a great deal to foreign aid. In truth, only about one percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Yet, America spends around 20 percent of the federal budget on defense. In other words, instead of sending food and water to other countries, we often send bombs.

Moreover, on average, the United States gives much less than other wealthy countries. In 2012, for example, Denmark and Luxembourg gave five times as much in foreign aid as the US did.

Concurrently, global poverty is still an enormous problem. At present, around 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars per day. Millions of children die from malnutrition every single year.

Indeed, poverty impacts everything from nutrition, to education, to healthcare.

It can be difficult to connect with these numbers. Seeing is believing. Yet, you can never truly understand poverty unless you have experienced its horrors.

As Mahatma Gandhi once contended:

Poverty is the worst form of violence.

Impoverishment not only robs people of their dignity, it threatens their very existence. It can also lead to political and social unrest, and even war.

Some Americans might argue that they would rather the government spend more on defense than foreign aid, in the sense that it goes towards our protection. Yet, when poverty makes the world less stable, we are all less safe.

It’s also true that there is evident poverty within the United States that also requires imminent attention. This is a fair point. Yet, in this globalized world, we have to view poverty as a borderless problem.

Global peace will never be achieved, in any form, until poverty is eradicated.

Unfortunately, even when we do give to charity, the money doesn’t always reach those who need it. With foreign aid, for example, corrupt governments often intercept what’s given and use it for their own devices.

The Internet is a powerful entity, and it can be used to ensure that charitable donations end up where they will be most effective. Hence, don’t just give because it’s satisfying, do a bit of research beforehand.

We all struggle in our own way, but many of us are still better off than most people. Much of that privilege is a product of our own hard work, but a great deal of it is also a consequence of history and the exploitation of others.

Simply put, where you are born in the world is a matter of chance. We can’t choose where we are born, but we can choose to use our privilege to assist others.

Perhaps the reason it feels so good to give is that we know, deep down, that even an individual can change the world. All it takes is one small act of kindness.

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John Haltiwanger