In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm wrote: “Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.” The more we give, the more we experience the world as the creation of our efforts and as a reflection of our aliveness. In the well-being of individuals that we support, we experience our aliveness. In the growth of communities to which we are genuinely dedicated, we experience our aliveness. The entity that we care for, whether it is a community, a fellow human being, or any living or nonliving form, is the source of our empowerment. In it we see our power; through it we feel alive.
For experimental psychologists, a cause and effect relationship, no matter how plausible and beautiful it sounds, cannot be accepted unless it is confirmed by means of experimentation. To test whether giving contributes to our well-being and whether giving is more joyous than receiving, Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues conducted an experiment at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
They randomly selected a group of undergraduate students and gave them either $5 or $20. Participants’ level of happiness was measured. Then half of the participants were asked to use the money they received to get something for themselves. The other half were asked to use the money to get something for someone else. Participants’ level of happiness was measured later, after they spent the money.
The group who spent the money on someone else reported a higher increase in their level of happiness than the group who spent the money on themselves. Dunn and colleague Michael Norton conducted similar experiments in different contexts and in different parts of the world. They consistently found that giving increases happiness more than receiving. Their results were summarized in their book Happy Money: The Science of Happy Spending.
Spending money on others is not the only way of giving. The practice of caring also has been found to increase levels of well-being and decrease symptoms of depression. For example, in an experiment in northern Italian homes for the elderly, residents who were given a canary to take care of had decreased symptoms of depression. Those who were not taking care of a pet did not.
We are born with a survival instinct. We are also born with an altruistic instinct, which makes us find joy in helping others and in contributing to their survival and flourishing. While on the surface the two instincts seem to be leading us in opposite directions, the altruistic instinct actually emerged from the survival instinct. Our ancestors hunted in groups, built shelters in groups, and escaped predators in groups. Collaboration was their main strength and in order to collaborate they had to help one another.
Post (2005) argued that the drive for help gave our ancestors an advantage: “Altruistic behavior within groups confers a competitive advantage against other groups.” In groups where individuals enjoy helping each other, collaboration is more likely to develop. Consequently, the group is likely to function better. Altruism is in the genes we have inherited from our collaborative ancestors.
In World War II, only 15 percent of riflemen fired at their enemies during combat. According to psychologist Dacher Keltner (2009), “Often soldiers refused to fire at the enemy with superior officers barking command nearby and bullets zipping past their heads.”
Keltner argued that the altruistic instinct kept soldiers from firing. Killing fellow human beings is against our nature. In order to stop the altruistic instinct from interfering with the soldiers’ behavior, the army changed its training: “Infantry training exercises played down the notion that shooting kills humans. Soldiers were taught to shoot at nonhuman targets — trees, hills, bushes. The effects were dramatic: Ninety percent of soldiers in the Vietnam War fired at their enemies” (ibid). The target had to be dehumanized for the soldiers to shoot at it.
When we do kind things, we feel happier; when we hear about others’ kind deeds, we also feel happier. Keltner noted that once we hear stories of altruistic and kind acts we immediately feel goosebumps and we sometimes find ourselves in tears. He argued that “we are wired to be inspired by hearing the good acts of others” (ibid).
In a memorable altruistic act that has inspired millions across the globe, Jacqueline Nytepi Kiplimo, a marathoner who was close to a win in Zhengkai’s International Marathon, noticed that a fellow runner was suffering from dehydration. She decided to assist him and run by his side until he reached the finish line.
“This act of selflessness ultimately cost her the race, but her second-place finish will never replace the first-place finish she has in our hearts after watching what she did.” This inspiring act of kindness and the reactions of admiration that it provoked illustrates a basic truth about human nature: We are wired to care and we are wired to admire those who care.
Colombo, G., Buono, M. D., Smania, K., Raviola, R., & De Leo, D. (2006). Pet therapy and institutionalized elderly: a study on 144 cognitively unimpaired subjects. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 42(2), 207-216.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.
Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2013). Happy money: The science of smarter spending. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fromm, E. (2000). The Art of Loving: The Centennial Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.