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Want to Be Happy? Stop Being So Cheap!

An interview with the authors of an enormous new study of generosity

Start giving your money and time away: New research shows you’ll be happier for it. Americans who describe themselves as “very happy” volunteer an average of 5.8 hours per month. Those who are “unhappy”? Just 0.6 hours. This is just one of the findings in The Paradox of Generosity, a new book by sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson presenting the findings of the Science of Generosity Intiative at Notre Dame. Researchers for the initiative surveyed 2,000 individuals over a five-year period. They interviewed and tracked the spending habits and lifestyles of 40 families from different classes and races in 12 states, even accompanying some to the grocery store.

The result is among the most comprehensive studies of Americans’ giving habits ever conducted. Other findings include lower depression rates among Americans who donate more than 10 percent of their incomes (41 percent say they rarely or never experience depression versus 32 percent for everyone else.) And giving away money isn’t the only way to reap the psychological rewards of generosity: Americans who are very giving in relationships—being emotionally available and hospitable—are much more likely to be in excellent health (48 percent) than those who are not (31 percent).

The following interview with Christian Smith is lightly edited for clarity.

Jordan Michael Smith: How is this different from preceding studies?

Christian Smith: A lot of studies before don’t conceive of themselves as studying generosity. They’re either focused on just volunteering or just financial giving or just giving blood. Our project is trying to see what the connections are between all different forms of generosity and to develop new ideas and measures of generosity that other people haven’t studied before, such as relational generosity. That’s making oneself in one’s relationships available to other people and being giving towards them. We’re trying to understand where generosity comes from, but also what the consequences of generosity are. So this book The Paradox of Generosity is very much focused not just on who gives or why they give but what effect is has on the giver to be generous.

JMS: Your book finds not just a correlation between generosity and happiness but actually a causation. Being generous makes you a person happier and healthier. How do you explain that?

CS: We have a chapter in the book looking at what social scientists call “causal mechanisms.” We found nine different causal mechanisms. It involves everything from developing a sense of self as generous to being more socially networked to being more physically active. We argue that it involves neurochemical changes in the brain, that it gives people more pleasure chemistry in their brain, a sense of reward for having done something good.

We don’t argue it’s one-way. We argue it’s circular. The more happy and healthy and directed one is in life, the more generous one is likely to be, although that’s not guaranteed. It works as an upwards spiral where everything works together, or it works sometimes as a downward spiral if people aren’t generous.

JMS: And yet the book argues that generosity has to be practiced consistently to offer rewards to the giver. It can’t just be a single act of giving blood or something like that.

CS: It has to be a practice, it has to be something that is sustained over time, that people engage with regularly. One-off things just don’t affect us that much, whereas things that we repeat, things that are sustained in our bodily behaviors and in our minds, have tremendous effects on us. The empirical evidence was very clear. Nothing we tested where you just do it one time has an effect. But all the things that you have to sustain over time have that effect.

JMS: If giving is good for you, why aren’t more people generous?

CS: Mostly because what’s going on in their heads. Most people could be more generous. They think they don’t have the money or the time but they could be more generous. I think people are afraid. They don’t realize that it’s good for them, that it would benefit them and not just other people. They’re afraid that it would be a loss. That if they gave money away or devoted their time, they would be losing something. So part of it is just ignorance, part of it is fear and insecurity. One of the points of publishing the book is to help people step out of the fear and step into a better place.

JMS: Since I know I’ll be better off by being generous, can I just start giving a bit and reap some sweet rewards?

CS: Actually, you can’t cynically try and look to get effect. We have to learn just to be generous people. It’s sort of like happiness itself. You can’t just go out and says, “I’m going to be happy today, damn it,” and then get happy. We just have to do things that make us happy, like have good relationships, and have rewarding work. And then lo and behold, we find ourselves being happy. It’s very similar. The best way to put it is that ultimately we have to pursue living well, and then ultimately we’ll be happy. And generosity is part of that.

JMS: Okay, but let’s say that you volunteer but are doing it to, say, meet new people, as opposed to helping others. Will that work?

CS:It might in the following way. Sometimes our minds follow our actions. So for a lot of practices of generosity, even if we’re nervous about it, or unenthusiastic, if we just get going and start doing it, later we realize that was not too bad or that was enjoyable or we try it again. So there is a certain amount of generosity that has a fake-it-til-you-make-it aspect. It’s better to just get going, even if it’s not for the purest motives, and then let it develop, instead of waiting around to become Mr. or Mrs. Altruism, and then do it. If someone thinks, ‘I’ll volunteer five times and then I’ll be healthier,’ that’s probably crazy. But if people have mixed motives for what they’re doing, why not? If that’s what gets them going, sure.

JMS: Some of the people in your book who you chronicle and classify as ungenerous seem to be close with their spouse or child. Isn’t that a form of generosity?

CS: They might be helping each other in a very limited sense. And that’s a good thing, of course, when people help their immediate, nuclear family. But the dynamics of generosity are such that people who are learning to be generous increasingly expand their circle to people beyond their most comfortable or the most intimate and there is a helping of “the other,” and not just one’s own tribe, so to speak. That’s an important threshold to cross in being a generous person.

JMS: How do Americans stack up against people from other countries?

CS:There are different kinds of generosity, of course. When it comes to voluntary financial giving, Americans are relatively more generous than people of any other nation. A lot of people from other nations “give” their money away by paying a lot more in taxes that support more disadvantaged people and better healthcare systems. A lot of Europeans would say, “well, we don’t it voluntarily, because we also give a lot more in taxes, and that creates a better world.” But Americans tend to be voluntarists. They like to give voluntarily. Part of it is that Americans are more religious than people of other nations, and religious people tend to give more money. But then again, if you’ve ever traveled to poor countries, sometimes they can be immensely generous. They have very little and can be incredibly hospitable, they kill their best chicken and give you a very nice dinner. So there are other forms of generosity that maybe Americans lack but other countries would excel in.

JMS: Were you surprised by anything that you found?

CS: I’m surprised at how ungenerous Americans are. I just said they are relatively more generous, but we could be so much more generous. Americans are relatively so wealthy, and there are so many people who don’t give a dollar to anything in an entire year, and they’ll admit to that on a survey. It’s hard to imagine. Another thing that is mind-boggling is that the percentage of people’s salaries that they give is unrelated to how much they earn. That is, as people earn more and more money, they don’t give relatively higher proportions of their income. It’s really not the case that a lot of people don’t give because they can’t afford it. It’s other factors. In their heads, as I said before.

JMS: How much does the American sort of libertarianism affect things?

CS: It does affect things somewhat. The idea of radical individualism that everyone should pick themselves up, everyone is on their own, affects some people. Although the majority of Americans aren’t radical libertarians. They’re individualists, but they’re individualists in the sense that if there’s a deserving poor, or if there is someone that really needs help, people will try and help them out. There is a belief that it is good to be generous to others, but there’s a fear of being taken advantage of, especially by the “undeserving.”