The Social Self

How self-knowledge influences interactions and perceptions

Giving really is better than receiving

Does giving to others (vs. the self) promote happiness?

During the holiday season, one custom that is shared across many religious and cultural traditions ranging from Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa is the act of giving to others.

For instance, we often hear the phrase that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) quoted a lot during this time of year. Although holiday gift giving has often become associated with shopping aggravations and as a key indicator of the economy's general state of health, there is considerable evidence in support of this frequently-cited biblical passage.

Science supports the benefits of giving

For example, research by social psychologist Liz Dunn and her colleagues appearing in the journal Science shows that people's sense of happiness is greater when they spend relatively more on others than on themselves. In one survey of over 600 U.S. citizens, Dunn and colleagues found that spending money on others predicted greater happiness whereas spending money on oneself did not, and this pattern was found across all income levels. In other words, even those with little money reported greater happiness when their proportion of spending on others, relative to the self, was greater.

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In a more controlled experiment, Dunn and colleagues gave students at the University of British Columbia an envelope containing money and told them that they either (1) had to spend the money on themselves before 5 p.m. that day or (2) had to spend the money on someone else before 5 p.m. Those who gifted for others were happier than those who gifted for themselves.

In some cases, there were 5 dollars in the envelope and in other cases there were 20 dollars. The amount didn't matter -- the results were the same. Spending on others made people happier than spending on oneself. Ironically, when asked to predict which outcome would make one happier (i.e., spending on oneself or spending on others), another group of students at the same university thought spending on themselves would make them happier than spending on others. In short, people's selfish assumptions were proven wrong when they actually had the opportunity to give to others than to oneself.

Transcendental leaders support the benefits of giving

In addition to solid scientific evidence supporting the benefits of giving to others, it's not surprising to see that many of the most prominent transcendental leaders emphasize the importance giving in their teachings.

For example, emphasizing the Buddhist principle of dependent origination, the Dalai Lama notes that one's own happiness is dependent on the happiness of others. In his book Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama observes that happiness does not come from material things but rather from a deep, genuine concern for others' happiness. In fact, the Dalai Lama contends that focusing on one's own needs instead of others' results in negative emotions that prevent true and lasting happiness for the self.

Similarly, one of my favorite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi regarding self understanding is "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

And lastly, and to bring things full circle with Christian gospel this holiday season, the value of giving to others was one of the themes reiterated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In arguably his finest sermon, The Drum Major Instinct, King notes that personal greatness and service to others is intertwined. In a world filled with people's selfish endeavors and nations' destructive engagement in war and violence, King emphasized that a desire to be the best (i.e., be the drum major) can be transformed from a selfish impulse to an instrument for justice if people adopt service to others as their goal. In King's poignant words, "Everybody can be great, because everyone can serve."

It is fitting that when King delivered this sermon to his congregation at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church exactly two months before he was assassinated, he emphasized that he hoped he would simply be remembered as a man who tried to help others, serve others, and give to others. For someone who was an accomplished international leader, it is poignant that in the end, King recognized the most powerful and enduring statement about one's life is not personal accolades such as winning Nobel Prizes but rather living a life of service to others.

Coda

During this holiday season, let's not lose sight of the value of giving to others. It does not matter whether you give lots or little, give gifts or intangible things. What matters most for meaningful happiness is appreciating the importance of those around you, family, friends, and community, and to do so each and every day of the year and not just simply on Christmas morning.

 

Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., is the James and Beth Lewis Professor of Psychology at Miami University. more...

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