Why does anyone give to charity at all, when they could keep money for themselves and be “better off”? This question puzzles scholars the world over. Surprisingly the results are remarkably consistent across cultures. Some people give everywhere research has been done, albeit sometimes more or less often.
Why does anyone give? Increasing evidence suggests that it is an important form of social bonding. A recent article in The Economist summarizes it like this: “The benefits and chances of future encounters ….. [show] that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated.”
But some people are either naturally distrustful or learn to be wary of others. A study in Israel found that people who did not give or gave very little in a laboratory game had a genetic variation compared with those who did.
A Center on Philanthropy analysis of charitable giving in three different years by the same people found that 15 percent of folks did not give at all in those years. Households that did not give tended to be lower income, so genetic variation does not necessarily play a role there. But maybe … if genetic variations are associated with trust, perhaps people whose genes lead them to low trust also have a harder time than others learning skills for, then finding and keeping a higher-paying job? A good research project for someone.
So what besides a possible genetic predisposition is associated with a lack of social trust? Basically, recent or persistent bad experiences. Alesina and La Ferrara found with U.S. data that people with low trust were likely to report any one or more of the following: recent trauma such as severe illness, job loss, or divorce; identification with a group historically subject to racism or bias; a low level of education or earnings; or residence in a community that is racially very diverse or in a community that includes people with very high income and people with low income. (Side note: Riots in parts of the U.K. this year and in France last year make a lot of sense in this context: those rioting are among the poorest in their societies and are often the victims of systematic bias.)
Psychologist Dacher Keltner's research finds that as a species, humans are Born to Be Good. However, experience shows that some people have more opportunities to act good--happy, compassionate, mirthful, etc.--than others.
Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project offers all of us, no matter what our genetic make-up and recent experiences seven tips for how to be happier in the next HOUR. One of them is "Do a good deed."
What will YOUR good deed be? It could be a charitable gift, contribution of volunteer time, making an appointment to give blood (and keeping it), or helping someone you know accomplish their own goal. Whatever it is, all research shows: do it and you'll feel better, and the world will be a bit better, too.