Giving Helps the Giver Too

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When I was in college I had a philosophy professor named Louis Dupre who told me a story I've never forgotten. He had a wonderfully generous friend from whom he eventually fell away for the most paradoxical reason: this friend was unable to let Dupre be generous to him in return. Receiving gifts and favors can be lovely, but there is also a potent and irreplaceable joy of giving that most people need to express.

This is not just an anecdotal claim. There is ample evidence that philanthropy does more than just help the recipients. It satisfies deep human needs in givers as well--opening avenues to meaning, happiness, and ways of thriving that aren't easily located otherwise. One must grasp that in order to understand why personal beneficence is such a powerful force in America.

Literature frequently expresses the joy of giving:

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

The best recreation is to do good. --William Penn

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else. --Booker T. Washington

As the purse is emptied the heart is filled. --Victor Hugo

A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had. --John Bunyan

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else. --Confucius

Giving is an ancient impulse. Way back in 347 B.C. Plato donated his farm to support students at the school he had founded. It is also a widespread impulse. Even people who have very little money are eager to give, and feel good when they do. Among households with annual income under $25,000, close to four out of ten still give charity to others in a typical year. (These and may other intriguing facts about giving are available in the book I've just published--The Almanac of American Philanthropy.)

The book Breaking Night tells the true story of a neglected girl and the kind people who intervene to help her succeed in spite of her horrendous upbringing. "What was most moving about all of this unexpected generosity," writes the now-grown child, "was the spirit in which people helped. It was something in their moods and in their general they were smiling, looking me right in the eyes."

She describes a woman named Teressa who came up to her and said, "Since I didn't have any money to help you out, I thought I couldn't do anything for you at all. And then last night, I was doing my daughter's laundry, and I thought, how silly of me, maybe you had laundry I could do for you." Every week for the remainder of the author's time in school, Teressa picked up dirty clothes and returned them clean and folded, taking great pleasure in this little thing she could do to help.

Lots of research shows that this is a common phenomenon. In a 2008 paper published in Science, three investigators gave study participants money, asked half to spend it on themselves, and the other half to give it to some person or charity. Those who donated the money showed a significant uptick in happiness; those who spent it on themselves did not. Other academic work has shown that offering aid to others can actually make the giver healthier--lowering blood pressure, stress, illness, and mortality. In his book Who Really Cares, economist Arthur Brooks cites studies showing that Americans who make gifts of money and time are more likely to prosper and be satisfied with life than non-givers who are demographically identical.

A 2014 book by two Notre Dame social scientists, called The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, combined national surveys with in-depth interviews and group observations. It concluded that "the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy. This strong and highly consistent.... Generous practices actually create enhanced personal well-being. The not accidental, spurious, or an artifact of reverse causal influence."

The researchers conclude with a simple observation. "People often say that we increase the love we have by giving it away." In this, they write, "generosity is like love."

Karl Zinsmeister is creator of the just-published Almanac of American Philanthropy, from which this is adapted.