Alumni Know: Why does giving feel good?

Social psychologist Sara Konrath (BA ’02) shares the science behind giving and some unexpected benefits of generosity

By Megan Vander Woude Office of Advancement

Every November and December, we hear a lot about giving. No matter what you’re celebrating this holiday season, you’re sure to be inundated with messages of spending time with loved ones, giving thoughtful gifts and giving back to others. These are the things that make December the most wonderful time of the year, right?

According to science, giving really does make us feel good. Sara Konrath (BA ’02), an associate professor at Indiana University, researches the science of empathy and generosity. Sara joined Alumni Know to explain how giving makes us happy - and how it brings a bunch of other benefits. Plus, she’s got some tips to help us get (and give) the most this season.

Takeaways from Sara

Science says giving makes us happy and healthy

When you ask people whether they’ll be happy when they give or receive money, most say that receiving will bring them more joy. But when you test it, the opposite is true. (1:10) A number of Sarah’s studies uncovered the "good-looking giver effect." Participants rated more generous people (who gave their time or money) as more attractive, without knowing the information about their giving history. (2:45) In another study, researchers asked teens to either do three kind acts or three new things. Those who did kind acts were rated as more popular by their peers. This effect continues through life, too. Studies show that older adults who volunteer their time had gained more friends and increase their social networks over their lives. (4:00)

Sara is also very interested in the implications generosity can have on our dating lives. The research finds that the number one thing both men and women look for in a partner is kindness. When you follow people through their dating lives, studies show that those were are more generous are more likely to get into a relationship, and tend to have more satisfying relationships. (5:20)

Volunteering can improve your life expectancy

According to Sara, one of the most established findings in this area is volunteering is associated with a lower risk of mortality. Even in younger people, studies show that those who volunteer saw cardiovascular benefits. (6:35)

How to get the most joy out of giving

Sara offers five ways that we can optimize our giving practices. (8:15)

Variety: It’s the spice of life. As with many other areas of our lives, changing your giving practices every so often can bring new joy and engagement.

Attitude: Those who give with an altruistic attitude (i.e. because they want to help others) saw more benefits than those who have other motives.

Choice: If you’re obligated to give your time or money, it doesn’t feel as good. People feel more joy when they choose a cause that means something to them.

Concrete: Often, we have lofty goals for our giving, but it’s better to have small, concrete goals that are attainable. It makes us feel happier when we achieve smaller goals.

Tips to give better this holiday season

It’s important to know that these benefits come from giving in many different ways. You can find joy in volunteering with a local charity or donating to a cause close to your heart. But you can also uncover these benefits by helping a friend or giving a thoughtful gift to a loved one. (13:31) With the holiday season upon us, Sara shares some tips on how we can give gifts that others will really appreciate and enjoy. (14:30)

  • Spending more doesn’t mean you’re giving a better gift. Research shows that the amount spent isn’t correlated to how appreciated a gift is. It really is the thought that counts!
  • Many studies show that it’s more beneficial to give an experience. When giving to her own family, Sara asks loved ones, "What memory would you like to make together?" When you give an experience, the recipient is happier, the giver is happier and they both feel more bonded.