The Causes and Effects of Workplace Generosity


Principal Investigator: Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California, Riverside

Is generosity contagious? How does generosity inspire others? Can generosity measurably influence individuals whom the giver has never met directly? Is giving really better than receiving? The proposed research will experimentally manipulate and record acts of generosity among a large number of participants in a real work setting. It will test whether and how acts of generosity can spread across a social network, and how far benefits can travel. To this end, this project seeks to examine the mechanisms and outcomes of “ripples” of generosity from one person to another in a social network.

The principal investigator on this project, Sonja Lyubomirsky, argues that the process by which generosity spreads can be triggered either by one who performs an act of kindness, one for whom of an act of kindness is performed or even a connector (one who socially interacts with a giver or receiver). Furthermore, the project will investigate the explanatory mechanisms underlying this process, how these mechanisms differ between groups, and generosity’s long-term ripple effect on an individual’s well-being, social relationships, work productivity, and physical health. In sum, the proposed research aims to increase understanding of the triggers, mechanisms, benefits, and social propagation of generous behavior.

Why is it important to study how kind acts can be stimulated and promulgated across social networks like workplaces? While promoting greater charity, thoughtfulness and kindness is obviously a moral good, it has consequences that extend beyond goodness and good feelings. Performing generous acts makes the giver, the receiver, the connector, and the observer happier, and increased happiness has a host of benefits.

Specifically, happiness promotes numerous successful life outcomes, including superior physical and mental health, enhanced creativity and productivity, higher income, more prosocial behavior, and stronger interpersonal relationships. This research both complements and extends Nicholas Christakis’s concurrent research program on the social contagion of generosity. Christakis is investigating how people will influence each other in an online experiment and longitudinally in a national

By contrast, Lyubomirsky’s approach

  • uses a novel technology (sociometric badges) to record actual face-to-face interaction in a real-world environment
  • measures generosity’s positive outcomes, such as well-being, health, and productivity, in addition to its social propagation
  • employs experimental methods, which enable us to understand causal relationships.

The findings of this project are likely to have significant implications for individuals, families, communities, and even society at large. Understanding how and why generous behavior can spread through social networks can galvanize the development of programs to catalyze single acts of generosity across diverse communities, thus potentially augmenting health, productivity, relationships, morale, and overall well-being. Such communities include schools, neighborhoods, medical, legal, and diplomatic settings, as well as online environments.

The current proposal combines several research methods–namely, survey data, behavioral data, and experimental methodology. Data collection and analysis will be performed at Hitachi in Japan, as well as at the Positive Psychology Research lab at the University of California, Riverside. Hitachi’s expertise is in the collection, aggregation, and analysis of ambulatory measurements and face-to-face interactions using a sociometric device they have developed. The UCR lab specializes in developing theory, designing and delivering positive psychological interventions over the internet, assessing positive emotions, well-being, and other positive outcomes, and performing statistical analysis of experimental research studies.