Feeling good about giving: Does helping equal happiness?

feel good illustration
  • Published Date: 16 December 2020

Helping others takes many forms, from giving money to charity to helping a stranger. It springs from countless motivations, from deep-rooted empathy to a more calculated desire for public recognition.

While intuition and pop psychology suggest that helping others leads to higher levels of happiness, the existing evidence only weakly supports this causal claim. A Harvard Business School study reviewed the evidence linking charitable behaviour using a variety of samples and methods.

About the research study

The study had two primary aims:

1. Exploring whether claims about the benefits of helping are justified

While many appeals for charity centre on the notion that helping makes the giver happy, there is limited research to support this claim. The study reviewed evidence that:

  • happy people give more
  • giving is associated with and causes happiness
  • these relationships may run in a circular fashion, such that happy people give more, then feel happier, then give more, and so on.

2. Considering the possible negative implications of advertising these well-being benefits in an effort to increase charitable behaviour

When people start to give for reasons of self-interest (eg. in order to feel good) instead of altruistic reasons, such extrinsic motivations may crowd out intrinsic motivation to help. As a result, helping behaviour might increase in the short term as people seek benefits, but decrease in the long-term as people’s inherent interest in the welfare of others declines.

Happier people give more

A number of experimental studies have demonstrated happiness increases charitable behaviour including helping and volunteering. One study suggested happy people are more emotionally capable to help others and have more optimistic personalities, fostering charitable giving behaviour. Positive moods, whether experimentally induced or naturally occurring, have also been shown to facilitate helpful behaviour in the workplace.

Taken together, the existing evidence suggests that happier people do indeed help more in a variety of contexts. However, this research only addresses one direction of the causal arrow between mood and prosocial behaviour. The question remains: does giving make people happy?

Giving makes people happier

The debate on whether prosocial behaviour increases well-being dates as far back as ancient Greece, where Aristotle argued that the goal of life was to achieve “eudaemonia”. According to Aristotle, eudaemonia is more than just a pleasurable hedonic experience; it is a state in which an individual experiences happiness from the successful performance of their moral duties.

A growing body of research provides methodologically diverse support for the hedonic benefits of generosity. A study using functional magnetic resonance imaging showed giving (in the form of charitable donations) is inherently rewarding. Other experimental studies have also found a causal relationship between giving and happiness.

Does happiness run in a circular motion?

The above research - that happy people give more and that giving makes people happy - begs an obvious question:

  • Is there a positive feedback loop between happiness and giving?

Previous research on volunteering and prosocial behaviour has suggested that happier people are more likely to engage in these activities and subsequently experience higher happiness levels from doing so. An experiment was conducted to determine if the link between happiness and prosocial spending runs in a circular motion. The data from the experiment confirmed the hypothesis that prosocial spending and happiness fuel each other in a circular fashion.

Will increasing awareness of the benefits of giving lead to more, or less, giving?

One implication of the research is clear. If giving makes people happy, and happy people give more, then one way of increasing charitable donations is simply to inform people of this loop. This means making a rational appeal that self-interested giving can lead to greater well-being.

Early research suggests “crowding out” intrinsic motivation through external incentives carries the risk that incentivising behaviours that are socially motivated may sometimes have unexpected and detrimental results. Several investigations have demonstrated the negative impact of mixing incentives with charitable giving. Presenting people whose charitable behaviour is motivated by altruistic impulses with self-interested appeals can be alienating.

What this means

The evidence supports the proposition that happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop (with happier people giving more, getting happier, and giving even more).

What’s less clear is whether these benefits should be promoted to solicit giving and charitable behaviours. Offering donors monetary or material incentives for giving may undermine generosity in the long-term.

Want to read more?

Feeling good about giving: the benefits (and costs) of self-interested charitable behavior - Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton and Elizabeth W. Dunn, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 10-012

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