Paying it forward is a concept founded on unselfish giving. Clearly, acts of kindness bring benefits to the recipients of our generosity. Are there also substantial rewards for those who regularly “pay it forward?” Are those who display kindness also being kind to themselves?
Social scientists have spent 25 years learning through controlled studies what really makes people happy. Their research has shattered a widely-believed myth. It has also revealed that being generous and kind – something most believe in but few take time to practice – actually holds a key to greater happiness for both giver and receiver.
Exploding a dangerous myth
The widely-held myth exploded by science is that seeking their own selfish advantage makes people happier. Study after study shows it doesn’t. The 80s bumper sticker phrase, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” epitomizes this view. Research reveals that those who spend their lives accumulating the most toys often lose. Dr. David Myers, social psychologist and college textbook author, sums up the findings:
Individuals who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower well-being, a finding that “comes through very strongly in every culture I’ve looked at,” reports Richard Ryan (1999).
Google co-founder, the fabulously wealthy Sergey Brin put it this way:
I always in the back of my mind figured a lot of money will buy you a little bit of happiness. But it’s not really true.
A better way
“Paying it forward” and generously giving to others materially, by helping, or providing emotional support actually brings much greater satisfaction that collecting “the most toys.”
University professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton reported in Harvard Business Review that their research had found that even in very poor countries where life is a daily struggle, people who reflected on giving to others were happier than those who thought about spending on themselves. Further, expending just a few dollars on someone else boosts happiness levels. They wrote:
In one study, we found that asking people to spend as little as $5 on someone else over the course of a day made them happier at the end of that day than people who spent the $5 on themselves.
Shawn Achor, who taught Harvard’s “Happiness Course” (Positive Psychology), relates how he often paid a $2 toll for the driver behind him, considering it an inexpensive investment in feeling good.
Acts of Kindness
In The Happiness Advantage, Achor wrote:
A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism – giving to friends and strangers alike – decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.
Renowned happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky found that having students perform 5 acts of kindness per week for 6 weeks really paid off. Some did all five in a single day. Others spread them throughout the week. A control group was not assigned to perform acts of kindness. As reported in “Happiness for a Lifetime” (The Greater Good – University of California at Berkeley) those who practiced altruism were substantially happier afterwards. As the study’s results graph shows, people who performed 5 kind acts, however small, in a single day were much happier than the others. Note how far away from happingess was the control group, who was not asked to do anything for anyone:
Generosity’s Double Bonus
The happiness reward for generosity is so universal that it may be hardwired in the human brain. And altruism produces additional rewards. Those who receive gifts often feel genuine gratitude. This can generate affection for the one who unselfishly helped them. It can form or strengthen friendships, which research finds are a major source of happiness.
Additionally, studies across the globe revealed that humans are motivated by what psychologists call the Reciprocity Rule. According to influence expert Dr. Robert Cialdini:
The rule says we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.
Thus, when we act generously towards others, even in small ways, we help ourselves. We feel happier. Those who receive our gift will often want repay our kindness. Doing so, they will feel happier. Receiving their magnanimous gesture or sincere thanks, we will too.
As the graph above well illustrates, selfishness can rob us of happiness. There really is “more happiness in giving than in receiving.”