How Giving to Others Makes Us Feel Good

What would happen if we re-framed donating to charity as a joyful activity instead of a moral obligation?

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Posted in , Jan 19, 2022

Joy of giving

Psychologists, theologians and preschool teachers alike have long championed a simple but powerful idea—giving to others is good for the world, but it also makes us feel good. In fact, social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn’s research has shown that giving to charity has the same impact on happiness as earning twice as much income.

“Generosity is part of human nature, Dunn said in a 2019 TED talk, “in the sense that we adapt to behaviors that bring us pleasure.” So being generous is one of those positive traits that are win-win, emotionally, socially and culturally speaking.

But Dunn has learned that not all generosity is created equal. The less abstract an act of charity or kindness is, she says, the greater its happiness-bringing benefits are for the giver. She cites an experience she had in her home community in Canada, where she and a group of neighbors worked together to resettle a Syrian refugee family in 2019. The joy, gratitude and satisfaction she felt doing that work was different from any charitable donations she had given in the past. 

Her research supports her own experience. “You need to envision how your dollars are going to make a difference,” she said, in reference to a study that showed people feeling happier after donating to support a specific action (purchasing mosquito nets for a malaria-stricken part of the world) than they did after donating to a general social service charity.

“All of us are capable of finding joy in giving,” Dunn said, “But we shouldn’t expect this to happen automatically…. It matters how we do it.” She added, “Let’s stop thinking about giving as a moral obligation and start thinking of it as a source of pleasure.”

This proposal, that we re-frame giving and generosity as fuel for our happiness, is powerful. It has the potential to deepen and broaden the ways in which we practice generosity in our lives and communities. And that, in turn, elevates the positivity and kindness that make the world a better place, day by day, moment by moment.

How do you feel when you are generous?

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