There are many, many selfless motivations for giving to a charity or doing a good deed. But being honest, most of us would also admit that these activities also make us feel good about ourselves–perhaps, dare I say it, even increase our overall happiness.
Do-gooders, charities, and even governments, then, might want to listen up to the results of a set of three recent psychology studies that are the first to measure in experiments what forms of “giving” are most likely to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
The conclusion–that social giving creates the biggest emotional boost–is honestly not a huge surprise, but thinking about it clearly yields some surprising implications. “Giving money is most rewarding when people are able to do so in a way that fosters social connections,” says Lara Aknin, a psychology researcher at Simon Fraser University who led the work.
In one of the experiments, she and her colleagues gave a participant money and allowed him to donate some to a peer. The giver reported higher overall happiness from the exchange when delivering the money directly versus handing it over through an unrelated intermediary. Interestingly, however, the amount of personal contact did not much affect the amount of money people chose to give (generally about half of the $10 they received)–only their own feeling from doing so. Optimizing for “happiness,” surmises Aknin, “might not increase the size of a one-time donation … but they may be more likely to want to give again.”
There are other clear strategic lessons in the results for nonprofit fundraisers. In another experiment, for example, Aknin found that people are more likely to give when they are interacting with a representative of a charity, even if it’s not the person to benefit directly from a donation. The scenario is akin to you sponsoring a friend who is doing a run or walk for cancer research, rather than making the same donation online.
But the implications of the findings also go beyond the charity world–from how we give simple birthday presents to how nations think about tax collection and spending.
For example, as people shop online more, they are more likely to have a gift shipped to the recipient (note card attached!) than bring it themselves–will the convenience of Amazon diminish the joy of finding the perfect present?
And Aknin speculates that taxpayers may get the largest “well-being benefit” (and therefore, be more supportive of) their government’s foreign aid policies if money goes to countries where many citizens have traveled or feel otherwise psychologically connected to–a thought supported by a 2010 survey.
“Any time we can find a social connection–whether that is on a small scale or a large one—that may lead to the highest emotional rewards,” Aknin says.