The Joy of Giving Lasts Longer Than the Joy of Getting

The happiness we feel after a particular event or activity diminishes each time we experience that event, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. But giving to others may be the exception to this rule, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In the paper, “People Are Slow to Adapt to the Warm Glow of Giving,” forthcoming in Psychological Science, Chicago Booth Associate Professor Ed O’Brien and Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management’s PhD candidate Samantha Kassirer found that participants’ happiness did not decline, or declined much slower, if they repeatedly bestowed gifts on others versus repeatedly receiving those same gifts themselves.

“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it,” O’Brien explains.

The researchers conducted two studies. In one experiment, university student participants received $5 every day for 5 days; they were required to spend the money on the exact same thing each time. The researchers randomly assigned participants to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else, such as by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity every day. The participants reflected on their spending experience and overall happiness at the end of each day.

The data, from a total of 96 participants, showed a clear pattern: Participants started off with similar levels of self-reported happiness and those who spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over the 5-day period. But happiness did not seem to fade for those who gave their money to someone else. The joy from giving for the fifth time in a row was just as strong as it was at the start.

O’Brien and Kassirer then conducted a second experiment online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent across participants. In this experiment, 502 participants played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. They won five cents per round, which they either kept or donated to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Again, the self-reported happiness of those who gave their winnings away declined far more slowly than did the happiness reported by those who kept their winnings.

Further analyses ruled out some potential alternative explanations, such as the possibility that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”

Adaptation to happiness-inducing experiences can be functional to the extent that it motivates us to pursue and acquire new resources. Why doesn’t this also happen with the happiness we feel when we give?

The researchers note that when people focus on an outcome, such as getting paid, they can easily compare outcomes, which diminishes their sensitivity to each experience. When people focus on an action, such as donating to a charity, they may focus less on comparison and instead experience each act of giving as a unique happiness-inducing event.

We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

These findings raise some interesting questions for future research – for example, would these findings hold if people were giving or receiving larger amounts of money? Or to giving to friends versus strangers?

The researchers have also considered looking beyond giving or receiving monetary rewards, since prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences.

“Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time,” O’Brien explains.

New Research Shows Split on How People Consider Transgender Rights Issues

Photo: AP

The Trump administration in late February withdrew Obama administration federal protections for transgender students that would allow them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

Transgender activists protested outside the White House. With two presidents essentially taking opposite stances on the issue within a year, it is obvious how polarizing transgender rights policies have become, said a University of Kansas researcher of partisanship and American politics.

“For as hotly contested as transgender rights are for some people, we don’t know a lot about how Americans think about this set of issues and what shapes those attitudes,” said Patrick Miller, a KU assistant professor of political science. “We don’t have a very rich understanding about how average people think about transgender rights.”

Miller was lead author of a new study measuring attitudes on transgender rights issues that found significant support for protection of general civil rights for transgender people — like equal access to military service, employment and housing non-discrimination laws. However, public opinion is more divided on policies that relate to the body and gender roles, such as people being able to choose which public restroom to use based on one’s gender identity or the ability to change one’s sex on a state-issued driver’s license.

“On traditional civil rights debates, people are more liberal on those issues when it comes to transgender people,” Miller said. “On policies that are more body-related, such as physical changes and physical presentation of gender, all of which are more specific to the transgender community, more Americans seem to differentiate those and can be more conservative on those questions. People don’t see all transgender rights questions equally.”

The journal Politics, Groups, and Identities recently published the study online. The article, “Transgender politics as body politics: effects of disgust sensitivity and authoritarianism on transgender rights attitudes,” includes Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the KU Department of Political Science, as a co-author, and the research team has completed a series of studies on transgender politics that will appear in a variety of journals this year.

Miller said regarding body-centric policy questions — such as questions about public restroom choice, or whether Medicare or health insurance companies should be required to pay for gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy — those most opposed are people who report having a higher tendency to feel disgusted in general, though not specifically about transgender people. Also, more opposed are those who score higher on a psychological trait called “authoritarianism,” which represents a higher need for order or to see the world in black-and-white terms. These individuals may place greater value on conforming to traditional social norms.

The researchers found those traits outweighed factors such as partisanship, ideology, and demographics in shaping attitudes about transgender rights, he said.

The findings would make sense given that much of the controversy surrounding debates at the federal level and in state legislatures have centered around transgender rights policies such as public restrooms, identity on driver’s licenses, and coverage for medical procedures.

“For many Americans, when they think about transgender people, their mind is on the body and how that defines transgender people in some ways, and maybe how that makes them different in some ways,” Miller said.

The study could provide insight for transgender rights advocates. Oftentimes it is communicated that it is taboo or offensive to discuss issues surrounding the body and transgender people, such as how someone dresses or how someone is undergoing medical transformations to their body.

“Certainly, I understand people have the attitude that it is ‘none of your business’ or ‘why would you ask that?'” Miller said. “But I think the implication of our research is that the evidence points toward the body being a major consideration that people have. So, if you want to lead society in a more accepting direction on things like the bathroom debate, you might be doing yourself more harm than good to not engage with questions about the body and to shut down those questions and discussions.”

Researchers consider the transgender population to be around 0.5 percent of the American population, and it’s likely most people won’t have direct contact with a transgender person, he said. However, as mass media news coverage and depictions of characters in popular culture becomes more common, that could influence how people think about the minority group. That also could spur more people to become curious and ask more questions about the transgender community, spurring some of those conversations that might be seen as taboo, he said.

“That’s an area where engagement may be uncomfortable for some people,” Miller said, “but it could be beneficial if you want people to be more sympathetic and understanding of the experiences that transgender people have.”

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