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Some Scientific Insight on the Correct Practice of Generosity

Holiday generosity is a time-honored tradition, but is it really worth your time? Giving gifts is supposed to be rewarding, but sometimes it feels like a chore. It’s a quandary that prompts the question “How do we give in order to feel good about it?” James Konow and Joseph Earley’s paper “The Hedonistic Paradox: Is Homo Economicus Happier?” yields a familiar insight.Picture of old man

According to Konow and Earley’s findings, over the long term, intrinsic generosity is highly correlated with an increased “sense of well-being” or, in another word, happiness. At first glance, it would seem that you could become happy by always giving people gifts. However, the conclusions indicate a caveat in accordance with the long-pondered “paradox of hedonism.” Put simply, the paradox of hedonism observes that pursuing happiness for its own sake seems to be fruitless. In this case, giving doesn’t automatically and immediately make you happier, and thus it’s impossible to “hack” generosity to improve your mood.

Although there’s a clear long-term relationship between happiness and generosity, the study showed that what happiness really relies on is a deeper, psychological sense of well-being. How do you achieve a deep, psychological sense of well-being? It’s hard to say, because everyone is different. However, the research suggests that the mental processes involved with a long-term habit of generosity, like understanding the desires of others and recognizing their needs, are a major factor. To avoid the paradox of hedonism, it’s important to cultivate these mental processes, rather than just giving stuff away all the time.

To illustrate the difference, suppose there’s a service that, based on a budget you set, analyzes your friends’ social media accounts, then purchases and sends them the perfect gift. All you have to do is enter their information, click a button, and from then on you won’t have to lift a finger while your friends all receive just the right gifts on all the appropriate occasions. It’s unlikely that you’ll experience as much satisfaction as if you had picked the gifts yourself — and it doesn’t take a PhD to figure that out. All this analysis ultimately amounts to a mere confirmation of the timeless adage you’ve surely already heard: It’s the thought that counts.

The holidays are the perfect time to start working on your psychological well-being, and consequently, your happiness. Here are three great ways to focus on the thoughtful aspects of generosity:

  1. Invite your friends out to volunteer. You’re spending time together and helping out. What could possibly be more in keeping with the holiday spirit?
  2. Give your loved ones the gift of time commitment. In our rush of modern times, we have a tendency to let valued relationships “get away from us.” Regular, scheduled time to make memories will be more rewarding for both parties than any bauble. Just make sure to show up.
  3. Start a fundraiser. If you don’t treat it like an obligation, you can have a lot of fun supporting a cause. Even better, you can put it on your resume.