It’s definitely the time of year to reflect on the nature of gift-giving and what positive psychology has to teach us about it. In broader terms, giving (especially in the form of volunteering or acts of kindness) is often considered to be synonymous with altruism, i.e. the unselfish concern for the needs and interests of others.
Kindness and Altruism
This would seem to fit very well with positive psychology principles; although the VIA Inventory of Strengths doesn’t specifically refer to giving, it does talk about strengths of humanity, such as kindness, including doing favors for others, taking care of them, and helping. There is growing research that being kind to others increases your subjective well-being and lowers your levels of stress and negative affect, although we don’t know which is cause and which effect. See work by Otake and colleagues, Fredrickson, and Thach.
(Un)Conditional Positive Regard?
But there is also large body of research in a number of disciplines (including psychology) which demonstrates that the act of giving is actually a more complex phenomenon than it would at first appear. Not all giving is altruistic, some involves a measure of reciprocity, or being nice to others because they are nice to you. The giver’s motivation, both conscious and subconscious, must also be taken into account. In human relationships, not only must giving take account of commitment and cost but also the feel-good factor, which can arise either from the purely positive experience of happiness, joy or satisfaction at giving, or from the avoidance of the potential feelings of guilt and unhappiness at not giving.
How often can you walk past a Big Issue seller on the streets of your city and not buy a copy? Can you remember that scene in the film Peter’s Friends in which Maggie, played by Emma Thompson, excitedly hands out carefully chosen and carefully wrapped Christmas gifts to all her friends, only to discover that they have not reciprocated. Their mutual embarrassment and her discomfort at their thoughtlessness are excruciating to watch. Thus it would seem that the act of giving is not necessarily always altruistic after all, there are a great number of influences on the decision to give, not all of them conscious.
Looking at giving behavior within intimate relationships specifically, Powell and Van Vugt (2003) for example, have found that that the relationship between commitment and making a personal sacrifice (giving) isn’t linear, as was previously thought. Surprisingly, those people in low-commitment relationships tend to sacrifice equally and sometimes even more than those in high-commitment relationships. It all depends on the perceived personal cost, suggesting that there is some kind of subconscious cost-benefit calculation going on.
This is similar to the findings in Hur’s (2006) study into the motivations behind charitable giving in Korea, which concluded that people give to charities both for altruistic reasons, and to satisfy their selfishness.
Research into giving from the field of economics (e.g. Pitts & Skelly 1984), and from the world of IT (e.g. Bergquist & Ljungberg 2001) about the so-called “gift-economy” (largely facilitated it would seem by new technology such as open source software, information blogs and the huge rise in websites enabling people to give away their unwanted belongings for free), supports the findings that certain types of giving at least involve some form of mutual return.
Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others
Can mutually beneficial giving and helping also increase our well-being? Frisch (2006) is well aware that his Favor Bank intervention, in which he advises clients to intentionally build up a bank account of good feelings as they do favors for co-workers, friends, and family, could be seen as “distasteful” to people for whom relationships must be built on unconditional positive regard. Nevertheless, he makes an important point, that some clients (perhaps in therapy rather than coaching) might not be in a position to distinguish between doing a good turn for someone and being taken advantage of, thus there is merit in establishing a helping routine to ensure that the client is in a position to help others.
We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. (Winston Churchill)
So where does this leave positive psychology, with its suggestion that we indulge in more altruistic giving, helping and acts of kindness to increase our subjective well-being?
Peterson and Seligman offer no positive interventions to encourage kindness and altruism, although fortunately some are now beginning to emerge. Research by Lyubomirsky and colleaguesPeterson.
Carr argues that altruism in children can be developed by fostering empathy, for example by getting children to reflect on the impact of their behaviour on others. You might be interested to know that in the UK, an organization called G-Nation has been set up – it’s part of the Citizenship Foundation, a partnership between charities and the government. G-Nation works with young people aged 11-16 to show them how they can change the world by giving. The question is, Christmas aside, are we all doing enough to set them a good example?
Bergquist, M. & Ljungberg, J. (2001), The power of gifts: Organizing social relationships in open source communities. Information Systems Journal, 11(4), 2001. 305-320
Frisch, M.B. (2006) Quality of Life Therapy: Applying a Life Satisfaction Approach to Positive Psychology and Cognitive Therapy. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.
Hur, M. H. (2006), Exploring the motivation factors of charitable giving and their value structure: A case study of Seoul, Korea. Social Behavior and Personality, 34(6), 661-680.
Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. Eds. (2004). Positive Psychology in Practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Otake, K. Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., Fredrickson, B.L., (2006). Happy poeple become happier through kindness: A counting kindesses intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361-375
Peterson, C. (2007). A Primer in Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pitts, R. E. & Skelly, G. U (1984) Economic self-interest and other motivational factors underlying charitable giving., Journal of Behavioral Economics, 13 (2) 93-109.
Powell, C. & Van Vugt, M. (2003). Genuine giving or selfish sacrifice? The role of commitment and cost level upon willingness to sacrifice. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(3), 403-412.
Tkach, C. T. (2006) Unlocking the treasury of human kindness: Enduring improvements in mood, happiness and self-evaluations. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 67(1-B), 603.
Image source: Special/Krystle Fleming