The Athlete's Way

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Pro-Social Generosity Turns Good Deeds Into Good Feelings

Being stingy makes people lonely and depressed.

It’s common sense that being generous makes you feel good and that being stingy makes you feel bad. As primarily social animals, human beings are hardwired at a biological level to use altruism and generosity to strengthen social connectivity and make us happy. On the flip side, being stingy will make you lonely and depressed.

A study released on August 20, 2013 by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School found that making a charitable donation directly to someone you know in a way that builds social connection creates much more happiness than donating anonymously to an organization.

Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and Harvard Business School set out to discover how the emotional benefits of making a donation to charity manifest under different social conditions. This study which is titled, “Does social connection turn good deeds into good feelings?: On the value of putting the 'social' in pro-social spending" will be published in the International Journal of Happiness and Development.

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Pro-social behavior, is defined as "voluntary behavior intended to benefit another," that consists of actions which "benefit other people or society as a whole, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering."

The researchers say that this is the first time a study has examined specifically how social connection helps turn generous behavior into positive feelings on the part of the donor. The findings build on earlier research that has demonstrated the paramount importance of social connectivity, altruism and voluneer work that I have written about in many previous Psychology Today blogs.

The team of researchers conducted three studies of charitable donations and found that spending money on others or giving money to charity leads to the greatest boost in happiness when giving fosters social connection. The researchers call this “pro-social” spending. The team emphasizes that, "While additional factors other than social connection likely influence the happiness gained from pro-social spending our findings suggest that putting the social in pro-social is one way to transform good deeds into good feelings."

Conclusion: Social Connectivity Increases Happiness and Charitability

The fundamental conclusion of this study is that donors feel happiest if they give to a charity via a friend, relative or create a social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation to a worthy cause. The research has strong implications for strengthening interpersonal relationships, grassroots generosity within your community and philanthropy at an institutional level.  

For example, buying or cooking a meal for friends and family not only makes you feel good, but it strengthens the social connection you feel to people in your life. Not that you want to "give to get," but there is a sweet spot where generosity feels organic and gives everyone warm fuzzies. Haggling over how many nickels and dimes someone owes after a meal is exhausting and can diminish the warmth, love and social connectivity that is nourished when people eat a meal together.

One of the most promising aspects of this study is that it creates a win-win situation across the board that will make the world a better place. If donors have a greater sense of happiness when giving involves making a social connection these positive emotions will lead to more frequent and perhaps bigger donations and less Ebenezer Scrooge-ish behavior.

The real life applications of this study could create a snowball effect of generosity and magnanimity because happy donors will ultimately be more likely to become advocates and ‘tell two friends and so and so on...” which would create an exponential boost in donations through what the researchers call “spontaneous word-of-mouth marketing."

Making altruism and social connectivity a machiavellian pursuit will always backfire. The researchers recommend that non-profit organizations looking to maximize donations should consider recruiting grassroots advocates and focus on strengthening social connections because social connectivity is ultimately the key to increasing donations. Again, this is common sense and it’s important to remember that social connections and friendship don't come with a pricetag.

If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: "Why is Doing Good More Important Than Feeling Good", "Evolution Does Not Reward Selfish and Mean People", "Volunteering Protects Against Heart Disease" and "Positive Actions Build Social Capital and Resilience."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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