Does Taking Pleasure in Giving to Others Make Us Selfish?

Creative Commons CC0Holiday gift Source: Creative Commons CC0

If a single word could capture the feel of the winter holidays, it might be glow .

The word itself sounds snug and warm. It suggests candlelight, roaring fireplaces, and lights twinkling through boughs and brightening the darkest days of the year. It conjures the feeling that accompanies gift-giving, too. Giving gifts reliably creates such a cozy, pleasurable feeling that economists dub it the “warm glow” of generosity.

But much like the creeping shadows cast by even the cheeriest fire, the warm glow has a dark side. Economist James Andreoni, who coined the term, claimed that the glow of giving makes acts of generosity ultimately selfish: If giving feels good, how generous can it really be? Maybe gifts are just another way of using other people to make ourselves feel good.

There is no denying the rush of positive feeling that accompanies the act of giving. When researchers give participants a little money, those who are randomly selected to spend it on someone else report feeling happier than those instructed to spend it on themselves. Even one- and two-year-old toddlers feel happier after giving cookies to a puppet than after receiving treats themselves. And if you take away the warm glow by compensating people for a gift—which turns giving into a transaction—generosity declines.

Neuroscience research has linked the warm glow of giving to activity in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, where the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, resulting in feelings of heightened well-being—and the desire to repeat whatever caused it. This makes dopamine a key player in addictions—cocaine, for example, also causes dopamine to spike. It would be an overstatement to equate gift-giving with an addiction, but the warm glow of giving does tend to make people want to give more, leading to ascending spirals of generosity and reward.

Positive, or authoritative, parents value mutual respect and being a good listener.

This positive feedback loop can drive generosity to awe-inspiring heights. The unforeseen rush of emotions that Bill Gates experienced during a trip to Africa in the 1990s to give children computers ultimately led him to create the mighty Gates Foundation. And a businessman named Rob Mather was so moved by the experience of raising money to help one injured child that he went on to found the Against Malaria Foundation, which has raised over $140 million and is described as the world’s most effective charity.

In our work, we have interviewed dozens of some of the most extraordinary altruists in the world—people who have given one of their own kidneys to a stranger—and nearly all started out as blood donors and volunteers. To a person, they say that their donation brought them immense pleasure and that they would do it again if they could. As one altruist told us, "There’s a euphoria that accompanies the act of living donation which is difficult to explain without sounding a little crazy."

From a utilitarian perspective, it’s not crazy at all. It’s undeniably a good thing that giving feels good, as it motivates us to keep giving. But perhaps it really does make giving selfish. Andreoni and others argue that the emotional rewards of giving rob the act of real virtue. Maybe those who give the most are actually the most selfish people just angling for a dopamine rush.

Or maybe not.

A recent review found that narcissists—who are genuinely selfish—are less generous than other people, and that when they do give gifts it’s only to impress or influence people, not because they genuinely care about them. This makes sense. If giving were just about feeling good, a truly selfish person would choose an easier and less costly way to get the same result—dopamine is also released by eating chocolate and having sex, after all.

Don't try to fix everything. Give young kids a chance to find their own solutions. When you lovingly acknowledge a child's minor frustrations without immediately rushing in to save her, you teach her self-reliance and resilience.

Another possibility is that taking pleasure in helping others is what it means to be generous. Think of it this way: Would you consider someone who gives gifts begrudgingly to be more selfless than someone who takes joy in it? Of course not. As Buddhist monk and neuroscientist Matthieu Ricard argues, “The fact that we feel satisfaction upon completing an altruistic action presupposes that we are naturally inclined to favor the other’s happiness. If we were completely indifferent to others’ fates, why would we feel pleasure in taking care of them?”

Research in my laboratory has identified some of the brain processes that naturally presuppose us to take pleasure in helping. For example, in altruists who give kidneys to strangers, parts of the brain that support parental nurturing, like the amygdala and periaqueductal gray, are unusually large, densely interconnected, and responsive to others’ needs. Animal studies find that the release of the nurturing hormone oxytocin in these brain regions when caring for others is responsible for subsequent dopamine surges. This suggests that it is our fundamentally caring nature that moves us to help others, and that feeling good may be merely a lucky and foreseeable outcome of giving, rather than its purpose—a critical distinction.

In other words: Feel free to bask in the warm glow of gift giving this holiday. That feeling you are enjoying is a hallmark of generosity, not its absence.

Abigail Marsh is an Associate Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and the author of the book THE FEAR FACTOR: HOW ONE EMOTION CONNECTS ALTRUISTS, PSYCHOPATHS, AND EVERYONE IN-BETWEEN