Want to Live Long and Prosper? Donate More!

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November 8, 2011; Source: Xperedon.comAs debate rages in the United States about whether charitable giving will shrink if it’s no longer encouraged by a federal tax deduction, it begs the question of why we assume people make donations in the first place. There’s a growing body of research seeking to answer just that question, and the findings are rich with implications for the nonprofit sector.  Among key findings is that generosity deeply aligns with our self-interests, because by nature it benefits donors in tangible ways.

This isn’t to say that pure altruism doesn’t exist.  Psychologists observe that some people are better able to empathize with the plight of others. Generosity is also influenced by experiences, such as growing up in a charitable family, or having been personally affected by a tragedy or act of generosity.  According to research with very young children, sponsored by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, it’s thought that some people are even genetically predisposed to generosity.

Motives for giving are not always altruistic, however.  People give, for example, to create a better public image or to feel better about themselves.  And yes, perhaps they give to save money on their taxes.

No matter what the motive, research shows that generosity directly benefits the well-being of those who give. For example, several studies, including one sponsored by the University of British Columbia, provide evidence that people who give are happier than those who don’t.  In the UBC study, donating as little as $5 helped people feel better.  Another study sponsored by the University of Oregon demonstrated that for many participants, giving activates the same pleasure centers of the brain as receiving—which are also the same brain centers involved with addiction.  Furthermore, people who leave money to charity in their wills live three years longer than those who don’t, according to a 2008 study by the U.K. based Fire Services National Benevolent Fund. Finally, several research studies suggest that generosity is associated with popularity. For example, in 2010 Newcastle University researchers created a game based on giving: the more generous participants also accumulated the most gifts back from others.

In other words, generosity brings happiness, longevity and popularity. Could direct appeals to donor self-interest along these dimensions help nonprofits get more results when they solicit donations? Does this angle get in the way of authentically building issue awareness and effective advocacy? What do you think? –Kathi Jaworski

  • Richard Potter

    Glad to see this issue continues to receive validation. See “Inner Workings of the Magnanimous Mind” released in April 2007 (http://www.ninds.nih.gov/news_and_events/news_articles/brain_activity_during_altruism.htm), and Give To Live, Doug Lawson’s book published over 20 years ago (http://www.amazon.com/Give-Live-Giving-Change-Your/dp/0962539996).

  • mirapeerance

    True generosity dissolves any difference between giver and receiver. Same. Or as the great Sufi saint Nisammuddin Auliya once said, ‘If you see your money leaving you spend generously’ 🙂

  • Rosalyn Myers

    I agree that the giving of funds to those who are in need is very beneficial to the human physique. but, there are many methods of donating, one important area is donating your time. It has been proved that when one is in a hard place, emotionally, to give of your time and effort proves to be as equally beneficial to your overall well being. I know of doctors who have told patients, who are suffering loss or grief, to go out and help others either with their time or funds. This act alone brings purpose and hope into one’s life. Donating becomes an act of unselfishness regardless of the reason for why the person is donating. Being grateful and wanting to show it is another reason that people donate and maybe donations are down because people have forgotten how to be thankful for what they have in spite of whether it is a lot or not much at all.

  • L.N. Belbase

    To give one needs to have compassion for others. All religions teach about compassion but how many of really practice? Can we empathize with the poverty and pain of fellow human beings ? Do we prey for the happiness and well being of fellow humans ? This is where the secret lies. The moment we feel one self as others generosity begins. Such people are happier and naturally live longer.

  • Wendy jones

    There is an aspect of justice in giving. Even persons who are compassionate and can empathize with others who are in need will be helped with the knowledge that their giving is a REQUIREMENT of natural justice.
    The book of Deuteronomy prescribes that there should be no poor among a people who see their giving not only as a choice, but also as an obligation imposed on all who possess one thing or the other.
    Justice therefore, demands that all persons GIVE from whatever we have – part of the culture of life, I suppose.