We are all aware of the fact that the recipients of various forms of giving often experience some kind of positive effect. What might not be as obvious is the positive reinforcement that the donors experience as a result of their gift.
In order to further illustrate and expand upon this idea, I have selected four case studies that sought to examine the experiences related to the act of charitable giving.
A group of students (Dunn, Aknin, Norton) from the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School conducted a study in 2008 which observed the correlation between personal spending choices and happiness as well as altruistic giving and happiness. In this study, participants where asked to keep track of their daily spending activity, their prosocial activity, and their current emotional state.
This research led to three important findings:
• No connection was found between the personal spending amounts and the subject’s overall state of “happiness.”
• The amount of the donation did not have a significant effect on a person’s happiness.
• The way in which the money was presented did effect the level of happiness that the giving individual reported. The “giver” experienced a greater form of happiness when they spent time with the recipient.
(The portion of the study that quantified the effect of face-to-face vs remote giving involved the “givers” being given gift cards to Starbucks in $5 and 20$ amounts. Some were instructed to mail the gift cards to their recipients while others were instructed to take their recipient to a Starbucks in order to use the gift card in a face-to-face manner.)
Similar to the placebo effect, the volunteerism effect has been a subject of much interest within the health and social science sectors. In 1990, a study lead by Doug Oman of Berkeley University, began monitoring older individuals to see if there was a correlation between volunteer activities and personal health. Over 2,000 adults over the age of 55 in Marin County, CA were included in the study. The following results were published in 1999 titled “Volunteerism and Mortality Among Community-dwelling Elderly.”
(A quick note about the methodology of this study: Participants were evaluated and placed into 5 different groups determined by their overall physical health and daily health practices.)
After 9 years of observation, the study found that elderly individuals who engaged in at least two different forms of on-going volunteer activities were 44% less likely to die over a five year period than individuals who did not regularly engage in volunteer work.
In 1990, Howard Andrews, a psychology professor at Colombia University, ran a study involving 3,296 individuals who self-reported their experiences related to volunteer service.
- 95% of the respondents noted a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing immediately following their volunteer activities.
- 78% of the respondents continued to experience a heightened sense of well-being 7 days after their initial service.
- Those who volunteered reported that they felt healthier that 90% of people their age.
On an interesting side note: The people who volunteered with strangers had a much greater feeling of happiness compared to those who volunteered for friends and family. Andrews related this to the idea that those serving people they knew were more invested in a positive outcome whereas those who volunteered with strangers did so for the positive reinforcement.
In 2007, two researchers, Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, set out to understand the key components to a person’s happiness. They determined that each individual’s happiness was composed of the following elements: a “set point” (usually identified as genetic factors) 50%, circumstances 10%, and intentional activities 40%. In their study, they were surprised to find that even though the economic situations of Americans in today’s world are much better off than those 50 years ago, their levels of happiness were not correlated to that change. Circumstances are transitory, they change, with or without a person’s control. The one piece of this equation that can be completely controlled, is the nature of our intended actions.
Sonja Lyubomisky has since expanded upon her thesis with the hypothesis that altruism, kindness is an intentional action that leads to happiness. In one study, Lyubomisky had students complete a 6-week study in random acts of kindness. They were to complete a total of 35 random acts meeting the following criteria: 1) The act had to benefit someone. 2) It must involve giving something away (time, effort, money, resources, etc.). The group of students that engaged in the random acts of kindness reported a greater sense of overall happiness compared to the control group. Those who completed a week’s worth of actions in one day (5 random acts of kindness) reported an even greater sense of happiness.
There is a expanding amount of knowledge about the nature of kindness and well-being. Perhaps this emergence of interest is due to our continued development as a modern society. While the world still faces incredible obstacles, many of us are fortunate enough to turn our thoughts towards our intentional actions. The idea that kindness, whether it be in the form of resource donation or volunteer work, is good for us. It’s even better for those that provide it.
Here’s a recap of some of the major findings of the presented case studies:
- It doesn’t matter what amount of money is donated, the more personal you make your act of kindness, the better you will feel.
- Elderly individuals who are active volunteers have a 44% lower mortality rate (over five years) than those who do not regularly volunteer.
- 95% of volunteers felt an immediate sense of happiness after their service. For 78% of those people, that feeling carried out through the following week.
- An individual’s happiness is a composition of circumstance, genetics, and intentional actions.
- Performing random acts of kindness can make you happier, especially if you commit more than 1 per day.
Sources: Volunteerism and Mortality Among Community-dwelling Elderly, Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, 5 Ways Giving is Good for You, psychcental, Psychology Today, Is it Possible to Become Happier?, Uncommon Knowledge, Sonja Lyubomirsky