Study finds we’re happy to share

Published: March 25, 2008 | 6950th good news item since 2003

It’s worth noting that human science recently confirmed in a small way the profound teaching that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

The results of a study, reported Friday in the journal Science, indicate that people who give to others are happier than those who do not. The amount given — or even whether the gift involved money — was irrelevant. What matters is a sense of having made a difference to others.

The researchers tried three experiments. First, they asked a group to rate themselves on a happiness scale and then looked at how they spent their money, dividing it into “personal” and “prosocial” — which included buying gifts for others and giving to charity. The proportion of prosocial spending was small compared to personal spending. But the rewards were not.

“Personal spending was unrelated to happiness,” they found, according to the Associated Press report on the study. “But higher prosocial spending was associated with significantly greater happiness.”

Then they looked at a group of employees about to receive bonuses of varying amounts. In talking to them afterwards, the researchers found they could predict who would be happier with the extra money based on how they planned to spend it — on themselves or others — and not the amount they received.

The researchers then gave a group of students envelopes of money, varying in amount from $5 to $20, and told some to spend it on themselves and some to spend it on others. At the end of the day, the happiest were those who spent it on others, even if they had gotten only $5.

This helps to explain why people who win fortunes in the lottery later report being no more happy than before, and often less so, as they squander their millions on big houses, fancy cars and other luxury goods. It’s also why we see celebrities who “have it all” spiral into substance abuse, loneliness and depression when, we think, they should be happy.

The Sentinel publishes stories every week about the good works and acts of kindness people in our community perform for others. Whether it’s elementary school students donating their hair for sick children through the Locks of Love program, volunteers at Project SHARE or organizers for the multitude of fundraisers that occur for various causes year-round, they all have something in common, we find: high energy, usually punctuated with a smile.

It’s easy to think such people get involved because of their energy, but we are inclined to think the cause and effect are the other way around — the energy comes from the involvement.

You can see a similar sparkle at Christmas time, as hundreds put a few bills or coins in the Salvation Army kettles, in the fall when they sign United Way pledge cards, in the spring when they turn out for the Day of Caring and in the summer they lend a hand with Habitat for Humanity projects.

What we don’t see are the thousands of others who just take the time to check on an elderly neighbor, share a bountiful harvest from the garden with co-workers, stop to help a stranded motorist or say a silent prayer for those in need.

Another study cited in the AP report, published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the section of the brain that produces the good feeling we experience when we receive a reward is the same part that lights up when we give to someone else.

In other words, we were made to give to others.

The important lesson from the new study is that not much is required. We don’t have to donate the billions of a Warren Buffet or Bill and Melinda Gates to know the rewards of helping others. We don’t have to devote every leisure minute to charity work.

It is enough that we give.

Published in Science & Technology
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