Each year, the middle of May is filled with mixed emotions on campus. During graduation season, my colleagues and I say good-bye and good luck to hundreds of students whom we helped develop over several years. As teachers, my colleagues and I esteem service learning and encourage students, through various mechanisms, to develop a character of giving—giving time, effort, and resources to those in need. If we are successful, our students become graduates who internalize their identities as givers—an outcome that benefits all of our futures.
Here are three specific reasons to develop an identity as a giver:
1. Kindness and compassion are universally valued traits in social partners.
We are drawn to people who can sacrifice for others, while selfishness often repels us. In a global study exploring romantic preference, Buss (2003) and his colleagues found evidence for both cultural variability and human universality in what qualities people desire in a romantic partner. Across the globe, both men and women consistently reported an extremely strong preference for long-term mates who demonstrate kindness. Kindness is a trait comprised of self-sacrifice, a signal of being a giver.
2. The more you give, the more you will receive.
Want to do something great in life? Start by cultivating a reputation as a giver. Research shows that reciprocal altruism, or the tendency of individuals to exchange goods, is a fundamental human trait. We are an altruistic species—when you help someone, there’s an implicit understanding that help will come to you in return. Through this basic mechanism, large-scale social groups and alliances can emerge. Given that this is how our species operates, developing a reputation as a giver is essential—it signals to others that you would be a good target for their altruistic acts (as they could confidently expect payback at some future point from a giver like yourself).
3. Acts of kindness make everyone feel good.
Given how evolutionarily beneficial it is to give to others, it’s no wonder that our proximate psychology helps reinforce giving behavior. Altruistic acts inherently benefit both the recipient and the altruist: Much research (e.g., Underwood, Froming, & Moore, 1977) has found that giving “feels good." One receives the good given, and the giver feels an emotional high.
Now Go Out There and Do Something Great!
Students learn many things during their college careers, from technical skills to abstract values. All of it is important, but the one I find most important to impart is this:
You have now received your degree. Your teachers believe that you have achieved all the things needed to be considered a graduate of this institution. Don’t take that lightly. We educate you partly with a selfish motive: We depend on you to take this education and do something great. We depend on you to make this world a better place. We depend on you to internalize the role of giver and to carry this with you through your many upcoming years, wherever life takes you.
Buss, D.M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.
Underwood, B., Froming, W. J., & Moore, B. S. (1977). Mood, attention, and altruism: A search for mediating variables. Developmental Psychology, 13, 541–542.