Why People Who Have Less Give More

Every one of us can learn valuable lessons from the generosity of the poor.

Posted Nov 20, 2017

The incident happened three decades ago when I was in high school. But I still remember it vividly. We had gone on a “culture trip” to spend a few days in a remote village in central India to learn about village life. The village was nondescript, clusters of mud huts surrounded by wheat fields. For someone who grew up in the maximum city of Bombay, it was a remarkable experience.

Charpai by Kashif John Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Charpai by Kashif John Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

After the village leader had welcomed us, I was walking around the village when a beaming old woman loudly beckoned me. She was at least 70, grizzled and lean with the build and posture of someone who has labored in the fields all their life. Her hut was very basic, essentially a one-room shack made of mud and cow dung and a thatched roof. When I peeked inside, it had little more than a charpai, or a traditional woven bed, a few pots and pans in the corner, some containing stored foodstuffs, and a smoky fire burning in the center.

Everything the woman possessed could be easily stacked on the single charpai bed with plenty of room to spare. Despite her meager house and few possessions, her face lit up with the most brilliant and welcoming smile. Because I could not understand her language, she gestured to me to sit on the charpai. She offered me a steaming glass of tea and a plate of food. After I finished it, she offered me even more and would not take 'no' for an answer.

City of Joy by Loren Joseph Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: City of Joy by Loren Joseph Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

I was floored. Here was a woman who had barely enough to eat and little else besides. Yet she was offering me, a perfect stranger, a large fraction of what she possessed. On a relative scale, this is greater generosity than I have encountered before or since. What is more, her offering was made unreservedly and with complete good nature, with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

The reason I remember this experience so vividly all these years later is because of the question that formed in my mind then, which I still haven’t been able to answer satisfactorily: 

How can someone who is hanging by a thread economically, having so little money and possessions still be so happy, so confident, so full of joie de vivre, so generous, and so willing to share?

There are many lessons to learn from this old woman about what it means to be happy, to live a meaningful life, and the relatively minor role money and possessions play in such a life. However, the lesson I want to focus on in this blog post is the relationship between having and giving.

This old woman is not an anomaly. It turns out that people who have less give more. In one paper, social psychologists compared low and high social class individuals, defining social class with the person’s own estimate of their socioeconomic rank based on education, income, and occupation status relative to others in their community. In their studies, low social class participants were more generous and believed they should give more of their annual income to charity (4.95 percent vs. 2.95 percent). They were also more likely to trust strangers and showed more helping behavior towards someone in distress. Contrarily, other research has found that higher social class individuals are more unethical. They are more likely to take things from others, lie, and cheat.

Why do those who have less give more? Part of the reason lies in the fact that they are more compassionate and more sensitive to the need of others. Psychologists refer to their way of thinking as a “contextualist tendency” marked by an external focus on what is going on in their environment and with other people. On the other hand, those who have more tend to be self-centered with “solipsistic tendencies” that are concentrated on their own internal states, goals, motivations, and emotions.

They also vary in their time orientations. Those who have less are focused on the present whereas those who have more are future-oriented to a greater extent. Like the old woman, the poor may choose to behave on their generous impulses in the here and now, instead of thinking much about the future repercussions of their giving inclinations.

Village Home by Sudhanshu Goyal Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Village Home by Sudhanshu Goyal Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Many readers will consider the old woman’s generosity to be foolish and reckless, harmful to her own well-being. However, when I look back and recall the expression of unalloyed happiness on her face, I cannot help but feel envious of her in a way that I don’t feel envious of anyone else.

Yes, having money and high social status is certainly a good thing in many respects. Money provides comfort and security, and a lack of it can produce real hardships. But once our basic needs and even some comforts are met, isn’t there value in experiencing compassion for others and acting on this impulse? Isn’t there some benefit to being sensitive to the distress of others, and behaving like the old woman in the Indian village at least once in a while?