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old post: ’tis the season–giving, happiness, and shame

Also 2011

"There is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving." Henry Drummond
I wanted this last blog post of the year to be on generosity. Is it better to give or to receive, well, at least to receive from ourselves? One of my favorite social psychologists, British Columbia's Elizabeth Dunn, has data addressing the question. For instance, in some of her work, she drops off money for her participants with half told to spend it on themselves, half on others End of the day, the givers are happier.
In another piece, from May 2010's Health Psychology ("On the costs of self-interested economic behavior"), she tries to understand some of the why. Participants played the dictator game.They were given $10 (Canadian!) and were then allowed to give some of this to another participant. The other would have no means of objecting to whatever the division of money was. Some gave more, others less. Controlling for how happy they were when they walked in the door, those who gave more were, after giving, higher in positive affect (think "happier") and lower in negative affect and shame. Shame, in turn, predicted increased levels of cortisol (think "stress!") 15-45 minutes later (controlling for initial cortisol). Stinginess' ability to predict cortisol was mediated by shame. Be stingy, feel shame, feel stress.
Consider that we live in a culture in which economic activity is driven by emphasizing that which we lack--if you could just drink some Duff Beer, surely you would be happier, so go out and buy it! Is it any surprise, with an industry given to making us think we have needs whose fulfillment would bring happiness, that we spend so much time on the getting?
Dunn's work suggests one cost of this. We keep for ourselves, feel shame, and live lives of stress.
I'll offer another, though I have no data. I'm a big fan of self-perception theory, which blossomed circa 1970 and was thence largely forgotten as some other shiny objects came social psychologists' way. Self-perception theory says that we know ourselves in part as we know others--through watching our actions. If I saw other people spending on themselves, I'd think they must have unfilled needs need, that they must be dissatisfied, so in need of more. Perhaps the same for myself. What would I think if I saw others giving things away? I'd likely think they had bounty. Perhaps the same for myself.
Despite all of the efforts on the part of advertisers and such to whip us into frenzies of dissatisfaction so that we buy their products or ideas, perhaps it's worth remembering that even those of us with the least still have an abundance--perhaps only of time, of ability to love. Only? Perhaps in our giving away this holiday season, we can be reminded of that abundance, and move toward making our choices springing from satisfaction rather than its lack.
Happy Holidays to all, and safe travels!

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