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The Christmas spirit matters when giving: SFU study

Those who perform acts of kindness for altruistic reasons feel better than those who do them for self gain

The motivation behind a gift affects how happy the gift-giver is, according to a new SFU study.

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The motivation behind a gift affects how happy the gift-giver is, according to a new SFU study.

We’ve all heard generosity is good for the soul but a new SFU study shows donating purely to help others makes you happier than if you donate for selfish reasons.

“People engage in helping behaviour for various selfish reasons,” says SFU psychology professor Lara Aknin.

“They’ll buy their boss's daughter Girl Guide cookies to make a better impression on their boss, they’ll donate to charity for a tax refund, they’ll list it on their resume.”

Aknin and graduate student Dylan Wiwad analyzed 688 responses from surveys that asked participants to recall a time when they did an act of kindness and why they did it. Partcipants then reported how they felt afterwards. 

“Lo and behold, we found that when people were giving for selfless reasons, they felt significantly better,” said Aknin.

The findings build on past research that shows acts of generosity can boost people’s happiness. Aknin has studied the phenomenon around the world and in people of all ages, including toddlers as young as two years old. But this time, she and Wiwad found that motivation behind those generous acts affects how much emotional reward people get out of it.

It’s a conundrum for people who donate for the sole purpose of feeling good about one’s self, said Aknin, who called the limitation “ingenious.” 

"People feel better when they’re concerned about what others get out of it, rather than what they get out of it.” 

But in reality, people’s motivations are not usually so clear-cut, Aknin acknowledged.

“Sometimes we are more likely to engage in altruistically motivated social behaviour and sometimes we also get some personal gain from it."

But she still had some practical advice for people who plan to give to others this holiday season.

“My general message to people is if you’re doing a kind deed, focus on what that means for others, not one what it means for yourself.”

Aknins says she plans to also study how people feel when they donate for self-gain versus when they don’t donate at all.

The study was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in October.

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