The Real Challenge of Generosity

What if the real challenge of generosity isn’t getting people to give?

Posted Jan 13, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Giving is good.

An abundance of psychological, economic, and medical research supports the benefits of giving.  Giving feels good.  Giving makes us happier and healthier.  It strengthens our social connections.  And giving is contagious; even a single act of generosity spreads the spirit of giving.

But every act of giving is also an act of receiving. How do we feel about receiving?  Is receiving “good”?  Or, is it better to give than to receive?

The findings of studies by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues, reported in “Spending money on others promotes happiness,” are widely interpreted as evidence (here and here) that giving is indeed better than receiving. In one field experiment, the researchers asked participants to rate their happiness in the morning, then gave each one an envelope containing an “economic windfall” of either $5 or $20, instructing them to spend it by 5 PM the same day. Participants were randomly assigned to the “personal spending condition” (spend money on a bill, expense, or gift for themselves) or to the “prosocial spending condition” (spend money on a gift for someone else or donate to charity). Participants were called after 5 PM and asked to rate their happiness. Those in the prosocial spending condition reported greater happiness than those in the personal spending condition, controlling for their level of happiness in the morning. The amount spent didn’t matter.

This experiment provides important clues about giving and receiving, but can we really conclude that it’s better to give than to receive? This experimental design represents a special case, making it difficult to generalize to most real giving-receiving scenarios.  For example, in real situations, giving is almost always a response to a receiver’s direct request for help or a resource.  However, the economic windfall wasn’t requested; it was similar to finding $5 or $20 on the street. The personal spending condition—getting an economic windfall and spending it on oneself—is not how we usually think about “receiving.” It’s hard to say that this would have the same emotional impact as receiving help or a resource that one requested.

The effect of paying forward the economic windfall (the prosocial spending condition) is open to interpretation.  Giving the windfall to a charity or spending it on a gift for someone else might make the giver happy because of the “warm glow” of giving. But research shows that paying it forward is motivated by gratitude for help received.  Perhaps it’s not solely that giving generates happiness, but that giving is an opportunity to express gratitude.  Finally, gift-giving is always a special case fraught with social norms and expectations.  The giver might be happy to use the windfall to buy and to give a gift, but it could also be that happiness comes from discharging an obligation to the gift recipient.  We need more research before we can draw conclusions about giving versus receiving.

What we do know is that our feelings about receiving are complicated and ambivalent.  As The Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit foundation that promotes individual and community health and well-being, states in their treatise on generosity:  “[W]e tend to bestow and project all sorts of virtues onto the giver but are largely silent about the virtues of the receiver. We all have heard many times ‘It is better to give than to receive.’ At first blush, this makes great sense. We want to live in a culture of givers. But though we want to encourage people to give, do we mean to say it is wrong or ‘less good’ to receive?”Surely not. Yet it appears that, even though the receiver is an essential part of the equation, they may be considered ‘less than’ the giver.”

We also know that many people are reluctant to ask for and receive help.  For example, 85 percent of Americans say that they would rather depend on themselves than on others and that they rely on themselves most of the time, according to national surveys I conducted.  In the workplace, people don’t ask because they dread the social costs of seeking help.  Another workplace study confirmed that people don’t ask for help because they prefer to be self-reliant, or they’re concerned it will make them look incompetent, or they simply don’t want to be obligated to reciprocate.

Yet help is rarely given unless it is asked for.  Studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of help provided in the workplace is given only after requests for help are made.  The reason is that you don’t know what others need until they ask.  Because asking is difficult, however, much help and assistance that could be provided just isn’t.

Generally, I’ve found that most people are willing to help if they are asked. But getting people to ask is much more difficult.  Perhaps the real challenge of generosity isn’t getting people to give, but getting them to ask and receive.

This challenge can be met by updating beliefs and by taking action. Sometimes, the beliefs we have about asking and receiving are incorrect. For example, the social costs of asking for help are real, but research shows that—as long as you make a thoughtful request—people will think you are more competent, not less.   Sometimes, we don’t ask because we assume that others are unwilling or unable to help.  Here, too, we need to update our beliefs based on the evidence:  In reality, people are much more willing to help than we believe. 

Next, you have to figure out what to ask for and who to ask. What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?  Once you are clear on that, the next step is to determine the type of help or resources you need.  Do you need expert advice, information, a sounding board, a referral or connection, funding, or something else?  Converting what you need into a thoughtful request means your “ask” should be clear and specific; it includes the “why” of the request—why it is meaningful and important to you and/or the organization’s objectives; and, it includes the date by which you need the resource. Finally, you need to figure out whom to ask and make the request. Sometimes the “who” is a particular person, but you can also make your ask to a group or community.

In forthcoming posts, I will elaborate on the tools and practices successful people use to make thoughtful requests and obtain the resources they need. For now, give yourself permission to ask.  Be generous and help others, and overcome the real challenge of generosity by asking for what you need.


Adapted from the book All You Have to Do Is Ask, Currency/Random House, 1/14/2020