If giving feels so good, why don't more people do it?

Author: Gilmer, Maureen C.

Originally published in The Indianapolis Star, March 11, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.indystar.com

Notre Dame professor finds that ungenerous Americans do not think of giving as a moral obligation

The most generous people don't have the biggest bank accounts. But they are rich in other ways.

This isn't a faith-based assessment. It's science, according to a University of Notre Dame professor.

Generous people are happier and healthier. They have a greater sense of purpose and emotional well-being. But are they happier because they give, or do they give because they're happier?

Both, says Christian Smith, co-author of "The Paradox of Generosity" with Hilary Davidson. He will speak Thursday at the Thomas H. Lake Lecture at the Indiana History Center.

Smith is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame. In his presentation, "The Generosity Equation: Donors, Faith & Avenues to Giving," he will look at religious factors that increase generosity, examine the personal benefits of giving and explore how charitable support can be increased.

For five years, Smith and others at Notre Dame have been studying "the science of generosity." 

"We're trying to push further into what we know about what influences people to give more," Smith said, including relationships, parental training and religion.

Nonprofits can use that information to develop strategies for broadening their donor base and better budgeting.

Because the lecture is presented by the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the talk will be oriented around faith, "but it's not just about that," Smith said.

"A person's view of the world and their responsibility to the world — those things matter a lot."

Smith said his research found that ungenerous Americans do not think of giving as a moral obligation. They consider it a "nice thing to do" — something that might even pay off in good karma. But they don't think they owe anyone anything. Others say work and family obligations leave them too tired and overwhelmed to think about others.

In his study, 38 percent of people who tithe (give away 10 percent of their income) reported being "very happy," compared to 28 percent of those who did not tithe. Happiness went up with hours volunteered. Those who donated close to six hours of time per month reported being substantially happier than those who volunteered fewer hours or didn't volunteer at all.

Charitable giving in the United States is expected to grow by 4.8 percent in 2015 and an additional 4.9 percent in 2016, according to The Philanthropy Outlook, a new report by the School of Philanthropy. 

But while disposable income in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the past century, giving has remained flat, Smith said.

Americans gave an estimated $335.17 billion — or 2 percent of U.S. GDP — to charity in 2013, according to Giving USA 2014. But Smith found that only 3 percent of adults give away 10 percent or more of their income.

He sets the bar lower in the Science of Generosity Survey, reporting that at least 85 percent give away less than 2 percent of their income, and more than half of this group give nothing at all.

Research shows that being classified as ungenerous doesn't make any of us bad people. We worry about problems in the world and feel compassion for hungry kids. We may even volunteer here and there. But we feel powerless to make a significant impact, so we resist the call to become more involved.

For those who do give generously, motivation is key. If you're dropping a $20 in the basket at church because you feel it's expected, you won't gain the same psychological benefit as the person next to you who cheerfully gives her last dollar.

Smith says he wasn't always a cheerful giver or even a good giver. He began to change his giving habits 10 years ago, with a goal of donating 10 percent or more of his income to charity.

He soon noticed a change in his mood, according to a report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

"You come across a need and say, 'I'd like to help with that.' It's a great feeling."

That inspired him to study the topic and report his findings in "The Paradox of Generosity." He and his co-author found that generous people on the whole are happier and have a greater sense of purpose than others, even after income and other factors were considered.

In a nutshell, the more you give, the more you get.

Overall, givers who were studied perceived themselves as "blessed" in life, while others with similar incomes and circumstances were focused on a scarcity of resources.

"It's not a matter of money," Smith said. "It's their own perception. People who feel they are living with abundance give more.

"There is an exceedingly weak link between what we give and what we have to give."

David P. King, director of the Lake Institute, said Smith's research "makes clear that it's good to give. I hope those attending will leave with an understanding that nonprofit leaders, fundraisers and faith communities don't need to apologize for asking for support. Instead, they are inviting people to give their time and money in ways that may lead to healthier individuals, relationships and communities."

Happiness & Giving

  • 38 percent of people surveyed who give away 10 percent of their income reported being very happy, compared to 28 percent of people who do not tithe.

  • 47 percent of people who tithe say their health is excellent or very good, compared to 39 percent of people who do not tithe.

  • 35 percent of people who volunteer reported being very happy, compared to 28 percent of people who do not volunteer.

  • 44 percent of people surveyed who strongly agree with the statement "It is very important to me to be a generous person" say they are very happy, while of those who disagree, 21 percent rate themselves as very happy.

Research provided by "The Paradox of Generosity"

If you go

What: Thomas H. Lake Lecture for Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

Who: Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame

When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St.

Admission: Free and open to the public