Is Giving Back Selfish? The Emotional Benefits of Doing Good

By Toyin Akinwande
Section Editor

It’s that time of the year again, when–aside from spending time with family–advertisers aim to convince us to get in holiday spirit by buying gifts for our loved ones and donating to charities.

Donation drives and exchanging gifts are a major part of the holiday season, but receiving physical gifts are not the only rewards during this time of the year; there are also psychological benefits in giving. A 2010 United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch survey found that giving makes people feel happier, improves a sense of well-being and lowers stress levels.

“The giver feels more part of the local community and sees tangible results of the time, money, or other resources that they give,” senior international business major and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship member Emily Yung said. “They feel that they are making an impact.”

Researchers found that giving makes you happier, however, does giving for the benefit of your own satisfaction take away its value? Psychology professor, Dr. Scott Roberts, doesn’t seem to think so.

“Good doesn’t have to be purely altruistic,” Roberts said. “If you’re going out with the intention to help other people because it will make you feel good about yourself, that’s not selfish … selfish would be finding a way to make only yourself feel good. Helping others is a win-win.”

Photo by Soula Christou

Charities and nonprofit organizations advertise the emotional benefits of giving to encourage people to give and some offer monetary and material rewards, although this may discredit generosity in the long term, according to a 2009 Harvard business article on self-interested charitable behavior.

“Corporations donate millions of dollars to charities. If that were purely altruistic, they wouldn’t bother telling anyone about it and wouldn’t claim the tax deduction,” Roberts said. “Maybe their motive is good [public relation] so they can sell more things and make more money, but we’re still glad that the charity benefits from their donations.”

Jack Garabedian,a junior information systems and operations management and business analytics major thinks that giving without a genuine desire to help others is bad.

“[People] will see why you are doing it and won’t feel valued or respected,” Garabedian said.

To some people, giving and helping others can be a scary experience. Roberts said his students write that they feel nervous about approaching a stranger and fear rejection, alienation or a hostile response.

Roberts asked his students to perform random acts of kindness for a stranger and report their experiences. He said almost all of his students describe a more positive mood afterwards than they anticipated.

“Seeing that you can have a meaningful impact on another person, even with a small kind deed, makes you realize that you are more powerful than you would have guessed,” he said.

Garabedian mostly gives back through his time and energy by being present and doing physical work. He said that giving back doesn’t always make him feel happy.

“Giving back doesn’t always make me feel better when I am hit with disappointment in my expectations of impact, but if my motivation is remembering the value it had for me, then it is not as much on how I feel,” Garabedian said.

Yung said encouraging people to give during the holiday starts with the right mindset.KarinaShedrofsky_Community5

“People can be encouraged by seeing the physical or emotional needs of people they can serve. For example, it’s very convincing to read the personal story of someone who is in need and relate to them as another person instead of someone who is defined by their circumstances or someone who is lower class,” Yung said.

“We keep ourselves psychologically confined in our own heads… earbuds in, eyes on phones, and obsessed with our own thoughts,” Roberts said. “We so thoroughly distract ourselves out of habit, often longing for deeper meaning and connections and yet ignoring the fact that we are surrounded by a million opportunities to create that…often with nothing more than a smile, a compliment, or a kind gesture.”


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