Generosity allows people to feel some form of pleasure, such as pride or happiness. But is it natural for people to feel pleasure while being charitable? Research behind the psychology of individual, commercial, and societal giving can show why we give back to others and how we can create a more giving society.  Psychologists have many theories about why generosity increases our happiness.

Theories on the Individual Psychology of Giving

In a set of studies, Professor William Harbaugh from the University of Oregon determined that there were three theories on the psychology behind giving back.

The first theory maintains that some individuals give out of altruism. These people feel good from offering a public service, like feeding the hungry. They care about the magnitude of the impact and not the actual process by which it occurs.

The second approach called “warm glow” holds that people like making autonomous decisions regarding gifting. These people derive pleasure from having agency over how much value and to whom the value is given.

The third hypothesis is that people enjoy being charitable if it produces social value or increases their social status. These people may enjoy being regarded as wealthy and powerful, or just merely generous by their peers.

It is likely that a combination of these theories exist within a person’s psyche. Someone might be motivated by both altruism and “warm glow”. In the study conducted by Harbaugh and his team, the results supported both the “pure altruism” and “warm glow” theories as motivators for charitable giving.

However, if someone has feelings of pure altruism towards others, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy about writing checks for taxes or other expenses that support public services. In addition, not everyone else responds similarly in these situations. Half of the subjects in the research study experienced more pleasure center activation from receiving money rather than giving it. For the other half, pleasure was activated when they gave money than received it. Those who received more pleasure from giving also gave significantly more to charities than the other group.

A research study from the Harvard Business School reports that people who had given charitably to organizations throughout the day felt greater happiness, but there was no correlation between self-spending and happiness. The beneficial impact of giving was present, and the study suggests that being cognizant of the emotional benefits of prosocial spending did not decrease the impact of happiness felt by the respondent.

Commercializing Charity

The Harvard Business School research also reflects how numerous charitable organizations advertise charity or donorship for their organizations and how that impacts individual psyches. The study finds that these organizations may stifle their donors’ willingness to donate in the long-term by incentivizing them with gifts in the short-term. Preliminary research advises that advertising the emotional benefits of this prosocial behavior, acts that help others, can highlight the benefits of giving and may even encourage individuals to give more in the future.

Creating More Giving Cultures

As a cultural practice, giving back can be good for us. Scientific research from the University of Nottingham identifies four key results about how gratitude affects prosocial behaviors.

  • Researchers found that practicing gratitude can increase prosocial behaviors that help society.
  • Practicing gratitude influences how much people give back to others. People who have a wider perspective of gratitude — those who are likely to see the positive in the world and in others — are more likely to help others or donate to charity than compared to those who only feel gratitude momentarily. In addition, people who expressed gratitude for specific, personal deeds were also more likely to give back to others compared to those who expressed gratitude in general.
  • Gratitude is essential for the social rules of reciprocity, meaning feeling gratitude helps people “give back” what they have received. This is especially true for those in close relationships.
  • Gratitude has the largest effect on a person’s willingness to give to others. It affects them more than happiness, sadness, empathy, shame, or anger.

In a world that is increasingly seeing an empathy gap, these studies may help us understand how to create stronger, more supportive communities. If people practiced gratitude on a regular basis, think about the kind of world we could develop and how it might heal our emotional divides.

As gratitude may be the key to giving back, it’s up to each of us to be mindful and perpetuate positivity in the world. We may start by asking ourselves how we can make others, including ourselves, feel more positive and how we can help improve society. Once we recognize how we should appreciate the world and each other, perhaps we can build a more stable and happy society.