Now that Christmas is over, I’ve been thinking about how giving and happiness relate. Not so long ago our family decided to adopt a family in need during the holiday season. It took a while to find a community agency that had a list of needy families, but with persistence we got the name of a family and the names and ages of the children. Christmas Eve we took our gifts to our adopted family.
photo by asenat29
They spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, so communication was more felt than spoken. After we presented our gifts and visited for a while we prepared to leave, but this family invited us to join them in a community dinner around an outside fire pit. Sharing in that dinner, I felt that we had received more than we had given, and I deeply felt the good for my fellow man.
Each Christmas, I find my thoughts returning to the family we shared Christmas with that evening. Yet there have been other times when giving didn’t result in the same sense of satisfaction or happiness, and I wondered why.
This past week I reviewed an abstract of a study on the subject of giving and I was a little surprised by what it said. For instance, the evidence “only weakly supported the idea” that helping others leads to higher levels of happiness for the one giving. It went on to say that when you combine happiness and giving, the data show that happier people give more, and giving makes happy people happier. The research showed that after experiencing a positive event of receiving something, those receiving it were happier and more likely to help others, and those who felt good continued to be more helpful to others (Isen and Levin, 1972).
The study raises some interesting points. For instance, to give just because it seems the right thing to do, or to satisfy someone’s expectations, does not increase the giver’s happiness. But when you combine an existing happy attitude with giving, the giver’s happiness is increased. (This seems to work in a circular motion. A happy person is inclined to give more and a happy person tends to have better health. But to give to achieve happiness or health does not seem to work.)
Another important aspect of giving is how the giver is rewarded. The study indicated that to reward the giver with extrinsic rewards might affect his altruistic feelings and actually reduce giving in the long term. We get a glimpse of why intrinsic rewards for giving tend to support long-term giving in a study by Professor Emmons, U.C. Davis psychologist and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. He has found that “those who are grateful and express gratitude improved their happiness score by 25%.”
Since being grateful improves one’s happiness, these same qualities reportedly have a positive effect on one’s health.
I’ve thought a lot about why someone would feel like giving or helping at certain times and at other times would not feel like giving, even though the cause involved is thought to be important. According to Aderman (1972) those individuals with a positive mood are more likely to help others, and this upbeat mood increases altruism, feelings of competence, and volunteerism.
For myself, I found that giving to the family in need was of personal importance and not just an activity. Because this activity stirred my innermost feelings, it made me happier and my mood was more positive. My happiness with what I was doing had a positive effect on me and on my sense of health. But each act of giving must stir your innermost feelings if giving is to be meaningful and health-giving.