Giving makes you happy

Health, wealth, and happiness.  These three, along with love, are considered "pillars of the good life."

The theme of this blog implies that without each of these, no outlook would be bright. All of this, in my opinion, is achieved by living a virtuous life.

A person without a bright outlook may assume that the present is all they have and focus exclusively on satisfying their hedonic sense of well-being. Seize every moment of pleasure that you can. To that end, anything that makes that possible, including riches, power, status, and influence, is highly desirable.

There is another aspect of wellbeing, called eudaimonic wellbeing. It focuses on finding meaning and purpose in life rather than pleasure. In the end, even those with the means to fulfill every desire find life to be empty without also fulfilling this side.

In addition, we weren't born in a vacuum. We enjoy every gift, including life itself and the ability to enjoy the fruits of our labor, at a cost to somebody.

  I love the way Chris Herd, founder of FirstbaseHQ, put it:

If you are giving back, you've already taken too much.

As it turns out, we can satisfy our need for eudaimonic wellbeing while simultaneously paying back our debt to the universe: We can be generous toward others.

What are other reasons to be generous? And what are some ways to give value to others?

Why be generous?

Moral debts aside, self-interest largely drives our decisions. So let's look at it from this angle first: What's in it for me?

In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Professor Adam Grant describes three types of people. "Takers" exploit people for their own gain. “Givers” focus on acting in the interests of others, even when doing so costs them more than it benefits them. "Matchers" operate on the principle of reciprocity.

According to Grant, people with a "giving mindset" are the most successful. For one thing, they are more motivated by a sense of purpose. For another, others they have treated kindly are more likely to help them.Interestingly, Grant points out that people with a "giving mindset" also end up among the least successful.  This is apparently because they fail to set boundaries and allow others to take advantage of their generosity. Says Grant:

Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.

In The Magic of Thinking Big, author David Joseph Schwartz claims to have done "hundreds" of little experiments and discovered that "conversation generosity" is a characteristic of nearly all of the most successful people. They encourage the other person to discuss their concerns rather than dominating the conversation. It's not difficult to see how this could make them more likable.

In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene discusses ways to use human nature to our advantage. We all want to be seen as generous. Rather than focusing on what we have done for them, Greene advises, your goal should be to remind them of the good things they have done for you in the past. They will feel validated once they do this: "Yes, I am generous." And once reminded, they will strive to maintain this impression and do yet another good deed.

Furthermore, giving makes us feel good. FMRI studies show similar patterns of activation when a person makes donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained.  They also show that the anterior prefrontal cortex (the "higher brain") is involved in "altruism tied to abstract moral beliefs."Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 103, Issue 42, pp. 15623–15628). 

Many research studies support the idea that giving others happiness leads to greater subjective well-being than seeking happiness for oneself.Titova, L., & Sheldon, K. M. (2021). Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (pp. 1–15). Informa UK Limited. It is more satisfying to spend money on others than on oneself.Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Proulx, J., Lok, I., & Norton, M. I. (2020). Does spending money on others promote happiness?: A registered replication report. In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 119, Issue 2, pp. e15–e26). American Psychological Association (APA). Spending money on others can increase happiness more than spending money on oneself.Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. In Science (Vol. 319, Issue 5870, pp. 1687–1688). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

There is more happiness in giving than in receiving. - Acts 20:35, Good News Translation

According to preliminary research, demonstrating moral characteristics (e.g., generosity) has a role to play in achieving status.Bai, F., Ho, G. C. C., & Yan, J. (2020). Does virtue lead to status? Testing the moral virtue theory of status attainment. In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 118, Issue 3, pp. 501–531). American Psychological Association (APA). 

Considering all of this talk about altruism and moral characteristics, is it possible to value generosity for its own sake? Yes.

Paul Piff at the University of California, Berkeley, studies human kindness and cooperation, and the implications of economic inequality. He has found that some people care about others in a genuine way:

Across these experiments, the main variable that we find that consistently explains this differential pattern of giving and helping and generosity among the upper and lower class is feelings of sensitivity and care for the welfare of other people and, essentially, the emotion that we call compassion.

David Meltzer wrote in Entrepreneur, "Providing value by being of service creates a void that the universe will fill for you."

Give, and you will receive. A large quantity, pressed together, shaken down, and running over will be put into your pocket. The standards you use for others will be applied to you. - Luke 6:38, GOD'S WORD® Translation

Generosity seems like a good thing all around.  So,

What are ways to give value to others?

Here, in no particular order, are some ways:

  • Give someone attention, approval, and acceptance
  • Find ways to make people's lives easier
  • Help them accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently
  • Help them by sharing what you know
  • Make key introductions
  • Give genuine compliments freely
  • Serve as a sounding board
  • Make people feel good about themselves and about interacting with you
  • Empower people to make good decisions and take the right action
  • Solve problems
  • Create a great experience
  • Express gratitude for the ways people enrich your life
  • Give a gift
  • Volunteer
  • Spend time with someone who needs a friend
  • Let someone know they've made a difference
  • Be cheerful and positive
  • Show interest in others
  • Be open and vulnerable
  • Offer motivation, support, and encouragement
  • Let your friends know how much you value them
  • Spend the time and effort needed to build lasting friendships
  • Look for unsaid words and emotions rather than focusing on only their words
  • Try to understand their perspective without judging it
  • Instill a sense of inner security in people
  • Mirror their values
  • Praise the qualities they are most insecure about

Give someone unexpected positive feedback on a task. Edward Deci found that providing positive feedback increases people's intrinsic motivation to do it since it satisfies their need for competence.Deci, E. L. (1971). "Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology18: 105–115. doi:10.1037/h0030644.

Greene encourages showing respect for others' wisdom and experience, and offers some more suggestions for doing this:

  • Ask them for advice
  • Let them prove you wrong

He also recommends lowering your own status by committing a relatively harmless faux pas and then asking for their forgiveness.

Speaking of forgiveness, there's a reason the word "forgiving" includes "giving." Letting a minor offense go unpunished is in itself an act of generosity.

Give people the benefit of the doubt. Brené Brown suggests always assuming people are doing the best they can.  Her colleague Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting would ask, "What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?"