Remember what they taught you when you were a kid:
It’s better to give than to receive.
Sure, it sounds nice. But no one really believes it.
After all aren’t these our basic assumptions about human nature and the ways of the world?
- No good deed goes unpunished (Clair Boothe Luce).
- When a fellow says, “It is not the money but the principle of the thing,” it`s the money (Kin Hubbard).
- Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody (Agatha Christie).
- If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing (Napoleon).
- The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
It may be a cynical way of looking at life, but we had better learn to live with it if we want to get ahead.
Or do we?
Lara Aknin doesn’t think so. A psychologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Dr. Aknin’s research should make us question the conventional wisdom that nice guys finish last and it’s a dog-eat-dog world.
In her team’s experiment, toddlers were asked to feed candies to hand-puppets, which appeared to enjoy the treats. Dr. Aknin explained her findings to NPR’s Shankar Vendatam:
“Children smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves.”
But that wasn’t all. Observation of children too young to have absorbed the cultural values around them revealed an even bigger surprise:
“Children actually smiled significantly more when they gave away one of their own treats than an identical treat provided by the experimenter.”
Dr. Aknin’s team found similar results among college students. When they gave students money to spend either on themselves or on someone else, then interviewed them afterward,
“people who were randomly assigned to spend the money on others were significantly happier than those who spent on themselves.”
Dr. Aknin concluded that we are actually hard-wired to give. If true, and if we follow the logic of her research to its natural conclusion, we can’t escape these disturbing corollaries:
- We have to learn to be selfish
- Society teaches us to be takers
- Being takers makes us less happy
What’s more, our own selfishness doesn’t merely affect us. It actually harms other by affecting our whole attitude toward giving.
How so? Ask yourself this question:
Would most people rather save one person or save the world? The answer might surprise you.
In a study at the University of Oregon, psychologist Paul Slovic asked subjects for donations to save a little girl from starvation. To one group he gave no other information.
To the other group, however, he added that this girl was one of millions of other starving people. Logically, that extra bit of information should have made no difference, since it’s the same girl being saved either way.
But as one of my own mentors likes to say, human beings are psychological and not logical creatures.
Case in point: subjects in the second group donated only about half as much money as those in the first group.
At first, Dr. Slovic assumed that our emotions predispose us to empathize with individuals rather than masses, perhaps as a defense mechanism to protect us from emotional overload.
However, interviews with the subjects turned up a different explanation.
Contributing to save one little girl made people feel as if they were making a difference. Contributing to the global war on starvation made them feel as if their charity was just a drop in the ocean.
Dr. Slovic concluded that the empty feeling of helplessness over what we can’t do erases the warm glow of satisfaction from what we can do. So we end up doing nothing at all.
Do you see what this means?
Ultimately, the impulse to give seems to be less about others and more about ourselves. We’ll give, but only if it makes us feel good.
And that is a sad commentary indeed.
Now ask yourself: What would you do? If you have $100 to give to charity, would you give it all to one cause or give $1 to a hundred different causes?
Based on Dr. Slovic’s observations, it should be easy to guess how most people would answer. $100 to one cause would have at least some significant impact; $1 isn’t going to be much help to anybody.
Now that may be true. But even though the effect of one dollar is negligible, in the grand scheme of things, $100 won’t change the world either.
What it will change is the giver.
By giving the $100 all at once, we perform only one single act of giving. By giving $1 at a time, we give a hundred times, increasing the charitable impulse a hundred-fold, transforming ourselves into natural givers.
What’s more, we create connections with a hundred different people. And those connections may end up paying off in ways we can’t imagine.
Giving charity is like voting. No one vote matters by itself. But all our votes together can change the course of a nation. If I consider myself invested in my country and its culture, how can I not vote?
In the same way, if I consider myself invested in the fate of my fellow human beings, how can I not be charitable? It’s not about me changing the world. It’s about identifying as a member of the world community and thereby changing myself. And the more I change myself, the more I change the world.
And we can’t delegate giving to the government. That simply removes the responsibility for giving from ourselves by transferring it to the state. The result is that we as individuals forfeit the opportunity to transform ourselves into charitable people.
It doesn’t always have to be money. There are many ways to give, and every act of giving benefits the giver even more than it benefits the taker.
So here are a few practical ideas:
- Keep a charity jar on your dresser or kitchen counter. Drop a few coins in it before you leave in the morning and when you come home from work, or before you go to bed. Start and end each day with a small act of giving.
- Carry change in your pocket. If you see someone asking for help, give them a coin, and add a wish for good luck. People down on their luck want to know that others care as much as they want a leg up.
- Smile at people when you pass them and say hello. 90% of the time they’ll smile back. Think how all those smiling faces will brighten up your
- Pay attention when people talk to you. Giving people your full attention might be more valuable to them than money.
- Make yes your default answer. Of course, you can’t give all your time away. But before you reflexively say no, ask yourself if you have a really a good reason for not saying yes.
- Let others give to you. If someone wants to do you a favor, like carrying your bag or holding the door, let them do it even if you don’t need the help. Why deprive them of the opportunity to give?
Don’t do these things because of what you hope to get. Do them because of the person you want to become.
But don’t be surprised when, after a short time, you find that you’ve become more giving, more gracious, more popular, and more successful.
Is there anything you could want more than that?