Giving Makes Us Happy. So Why Do So Few Do It?

Author: Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson

Originally published on Vox, November 3, 2014

America has a generosity problem. Despite our relative wealth and voluntarist spirit, the majority of us clutch tightly to our pocketbooks and schedules. According to our data collected with the Science of Generosity survey, only 3 percent of American adults give away 10 percent or more of their income. This number is calculated by dividing the amount respondents reported giving away by their reported total salary.

What does this tell us? If we think that giving away 10 percent of one's income is an exceptional feat, then this number is a bit impressive. But if we think it is a good baseline measure of true financial generosity, then the vast majority of Americans are falling below the bar. For purposes of this article, suffice it to say that giving 10 percent of one's income is a good marker associated with enjoying better health, happiness, and purpose in life. Viewed this way, the vast majority of Americans (97 percent) are forfeiting the chance to enhance their well-being by practicing real generosity with their money.

We can assess Americans' financial generosity by lowering the standard and seeing what percentage of Americans do not give even 2 percent or more of their income. Findings from the Science of Generosity Survey show that at least 85 percent give away less than 2 percent of their income. This, again, is calculated by dividing the sum of the amount of money they say they give away in 36 possible categories of types of giving by their reported annual income-which we have reason to believe produces accurate results. Assuming so, we see that most Americans, about six out of seven, do not give away even two percent of their income. Slightly more than half of this group give away not $1. That suggests a culture of miserliness, one that extends to other forms of generosity. More than three-quarters of Americans did not volunteer in the year prior to our survey and 88.5 percent did not give blood.

Given these facts, it is likely that the majority of those reading this article will fall into the "ungenerous" category. Perhaps you, too, are are not as generous as you could be. And this not only deprives those who could benefit from your time, money, and care. It is also deprives you of the goods that generosity produces. By failing to care well for others, we fail to properly take care of ourselves.


We find a strong and highly consistent association between generous practices and various measures of personal well-being like happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth. In our book we discuss the various causal mechanisms that produce this association. While greater well-being can encourage generosity, practices of generosity also enhance well-being. The causal mechanisms we identify involve everything from reinforcing positive emotions to developing a sense of self-efficacy to expanding social networks to increasing physical activity. Generosity, for example, often triggers neurochemical systems that increase pleasure and reduce stress. It also has the capability of reducing the maladaptive self-absorption that many ungenerous Americans experience. By giving away some of our resources for the well-being of others we can enhance our own. By clinging to what we have, we shortchange ourselves.

Learning to become generous, or even desiring generosity, is challenging. In what follows we examine some of the cultural barriers that discourage generosity. Reflecting on our culturally shared perceptions of generosity allows us to better understand our own personal fears and insecurities that cause us to clutch onto our resources and thus prevent us from enjoying the many benefits of practicing generosity. This type of reflection implicitly poses an important existential question: will we choose to live a more generous life or not?

For our book, The Paradox of Generosity, we interviewed 30 Americans who we classify as ungenerous to find out what they make of their lack of generosity and what they think stands in the way of becoming a more generous person. Most of those we interviewed are ungenerous across the board with their money, time, relational care, and other resources. Four people we interviewed volunteer significant amounts of time but give very little money away, even though their households accrue sizable incomes. Here's what they had to say:

We don't believe generosity is essential

Not surprisingly, ungenerous Americans do not think of generosity as a moral obligation. They instead think it's a "nice thing to do" if a person or family wants to give some of their income or time away. It may even provide some good karma. For example, "Shane Little" from Oregon says:

In my opinion, I don't feel it's a moral duty. Although I think it's in the best interest of everybody if they did. Again, what goes around comes around. But again, if you choose not to, then that's your own decision and I don't think anybody should be required to.

In some ways, "karma" seems to be a softer version of the utilitarian tit-for-tat that some ungenerous people idealize and draw on to support their autonomous inclinations. Karma, in their minds, functions like capitalism — what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Citing karma as the reason to practice generosity assumes personal pleasure as the yardstick to measure the worthiness of actions. It also relieves the ungenerous of responsibility for other people.

We don't think we have enough money

According to Shane's wife, "Kimberly," the couple would like to be generous with their resources, but, she says, they cannot afford to give money away. When asked if she would be willing to volunteer instead of give money, she admits that she would rather not. "When I'm not working, I'd rather be with my family — I know that probably sounds a little selfish." Like many ungenerous Americans we spoke with, Kimberly, who already feels stretched thin by the demands of her taxing and low-paying job at a big-box store, prioritizes her family. Her broader community is beyond the purview of her concerns.

Our jobs make us too tired to be generous

"Adam Berry" of Nevada also acknowledges that he does not have a desire to be generous, since the work day takes a lot out of him and is overwhelming enough. Self-indulgence becomes his default mode. "I think it's just because I get home and I'm so wrapped up in my own life, that's why. I just don't even think about it." Another, "Truman Wright," avoids giving time or money simply because "I don't want to be bothered." Several ungenerous people in our study admit that their refusal to act generously violates what it means to them to be a good person. They regularly refer to themselves as "selfish," "a scrooge," or "an asshole."

‘I give at work'

Other relatively ungenerous Americans sometimes do give smaller amounts of money, usually one-time gifts under $50 to friends raising support for a race or a good cause, or to the local police department, for example. Many of these do not give for generous purposes, but rather have strong ulterior motives. For example, "Bill Kalon" of Southern California is a warehouse manager and has $3.50 automatically deducted from his biweekly paycheck and given to the United Way. "I don't even think about it," he says, at first not even remembering this donation. Only after a few minutes of talking about financial generosity does he remember. So why does he bother to give $84 away each year? "Honestly, to be 100 percent honest, it's kind of frowned upon to not do that at [my company] as a manager person … It's because [my company] wants to be one of the leaders in contributing to United Way … I'm not even sure why they do it." If his company were not involved with United Way and sending subtle signals of pressure to give, would he give money anyway? "Nope," he says, "Probably not."

We think poor people should help themselves

There are yet others who have a strong libertarian streak, like "Randall Weir" in Northern California, who actually warn of generosity's ills and believe that people who give anything away are delusional and weak. "When people act like they need to take care of somebody else, when it's not part of their responsibility, it's like, they want to be nice [but] it gets to a point where I get worried, I get concerned," he told us. "I think that's destroying the human spirit, the spirit of ‘I'm going to take care of my own things.' " A strong believer in self-sufficiency, Randall scoffs when we ask him if he considers himself to be a generous person: "Yeah, sort of like I roll over and get stepped on kind of a thing?" Are there any circumstances, we asked, in which someone else might merit his generosity or the generosity of others? His reply:

I'm sorry, but living in the middle of the Sahara, you're gonna die! That's why I don't go to the Sahara. And if I was there, I would book my ass out of there in whichever way I could. . . . I'm not going to grow a family there. I'm not trying to be cold-hearted, I'm trying to be helpful to solve their issue. . . . If somebody's living in a place where there's constant, repetitive, overwhelming community lack of food, you know, come on. Make a better choice. Do something about that. Move closer to water. Move away from the desert. They need to fix their own problem. I'm not going to move their own furniture, they've got to do that themselves.

Randall does not envision himself as "cold-hearted." He is "trying to be helpful" and encourage people to achieve autonomy, which he believes to be the greatest human good. Like more generous respondents, he believes the world is a place of abundance. But he rejects the assertion of generous people — that they have plenty for themselves and thus should be generous toward others. Randall believes instead that every individual should be able to track down the resources needed to survive, and that help from others can only diminish the capacity of those in dire straits to achieve their own flourishing. Although he adamantly refuses to give away any of his $60,000 salary, he does volunteer for his son's Boy Scout troop. His motives there are not generous either. Rather, he volunteers "because it's fun stuff to do. I'm not out to change the world for Jerry's kids or something. I just don't care [about that], I guess."

Personal autonomy, self-preservation, and rugged individualism are key and sacred concepts in the vocabulary of the ungenerous people we interviewed. Generous giving does not make sense because, as expressed by Adam, Shane, or Kimberly, one's own individual autonomy is of primary importance in life; or, like Bill, they are only interested in giving money when it serves a direct personal interest. Still others, like Randall, believe that generosity toward others undercuts the ability of the beneficiaries to support themselves.

There are deeply rooted cultural and sometimes psychobiological reasons why a practice of generosity proves difficult for many of our respondents. We are in no way suggesting that ungenerous people can simply will themselves to be more generous with their resources and thus experience greater well-being. The reality is far more complex. Our analysis points to the importance of context and socioeconomic inequality when considering the social forces that encourage or impede generous practices.

The downsides of being ungenerous

Like generous people, Americans who do not practice generosity have the capacity to care for and love the people in their lives. They try to be good spouses, parents, and friends. Many are concerned about problems in the world, and most feel compassion when they see a television commercial for starving children in Africa, or hear news of a devastating natural disaster. They do not mind volunteering a couple of hours here or there to a daughter's soccer team or community event. Many even wish they could be more generous with their time and money. For the most part, they are doing what they think is their best to be a reasonably decent person.

Nevertheless, we find consistent evidence that ungenerous lifestyles associate with an apathy riddled by anxiety. Our interviews with Americans who do not practice generosity reveal that they are deeply unsettled by individual and social problems. Yet they do not think they have any obligation to respond, and even if they do, they feel inadequate to make a difference without sacrificing their ability to care for their own needs. Feeling vulnerable to broader societal problems, the instability of the marketplace, material scarcity, and the challenges that come with relational intimacy, they respond by hunkering down, either alone or with immediate family members, to simply try to weather the storm. They imagine other people as restrictions on their autonomy.

By giving away some of our resources for the well-being of others, we can enhance our own

Self-preservation and financial security are the main standards by which ungenerous Americans assess their lives. This approach thus stokes an anxiety that at worst is soothed by apathy and a withdrawal from concerns beyond one's own individual concerns, and at best results in some intermittent caring, volunteering, and financial generosity. This framework also encourages a hoarding mentality. When it comes to safety and security, it is necessary to err on the side of saving up too much. Again, some seem to have learned this response after experiencing food insecurity, inadequate mental or physical health care, or financial vulnerability while trying to make it on an unlivable minimum wage.

The Great Recession and mortgage crisis likely strengthened the resolve of some of those we interviewed in the middle class who prefer to protect rather than share some of their assets. Fear is a powerful motivator and the fear of having too little, sometimes rooted in reality and sometimes fabricated or expanded, powerfully motivates them to protect their resources. As an analogy, airline patrons are, in the event of an emergency, admonished to secure their own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. The logic of most ungenerous people takes this a step further. Each person only needs to get his own mask on and not worry about anyone else until after he has safely exited the aircraft, but by then it is probably too late, so why bother to return with aid?


At the same time, ungenerous Americans recoil from impositions of all kinds, not only those of needy people. They prefer to live without authoritative moral codes, religious traditions, or even close, non-familial friendships that might ask them to act in ways that cut against their self-interest. They do not see and cannot accept that it actually is in their own best interest to reach beyond a materialistic neoliberal concept of self-interest. Fear of not having enough and a desire for greater security loom large in their thinking, and ultimately prevent them from acting on whatever generous impulses they may have. Their pursuit of happiness is often derailed by their desires for materially comfortable lives. They do not search for genuine contentment in the way generous people do, beyond the superficialities of accumulating material possessions. In their minds, being a good person is not so much about what one does, as about what one does not do. So it is fine to spend all of one's money and time on what seemingly leads to happiness — a bigger house or weekends spent watching television — so long as one does not directly hurt others in the process. The only responsibility anyone has toward others is to not do them direct harm.

As Elaine Woods of California put it plainly: "Do I feel an obligation to do things that are not going to harm other people? Yes, I do. Do I feel an obligation to care for other people? No." To state it differently, the ungenerous Americans we talked with fail to grasp the fact that their actions do not take place in a social, political, economic, and environmental vacuum. They do not see that everyone's life, however lived, sends out ripples of influence, positive and negative, toward untold numbers of other people. We cannot help but be responsible to some extent to and for others. But the notion that it is possible to give more generously of one's resources to others rarely, if ever, crosses the minds of the ungenerous.

In the end, however, the fear of not having enough, coupled with an autonomously individualistic lifestyle, nearly always proves to be deeply unfulfilling. Attaining the sort of happiness found in material well-being and security, which the majority of ungenerous Americans pursue without regard for others, comes at a great personal cost. The battle is won, but the war is lost. The means people use to achieve this version of happiness leads to a self-defeated end. And that frustrated end obscures the deeper, richer, more complex kinds of happiness humans want, sending them on misguided searches for more of what already does not satisfy.