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.
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: