Monday, March 14, 2011

Giving Feels Good: Why We Should Help Japan

“If we want to help humanity in a practical way, we must begin by setting an example of mutual respect, harmony and cooperation.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama (via twitter)

The recent earthquake off the coast of Japan was among the most devastating in recent memory. As the death toll continues to increase, it is clear that the people of Japan need help from the rest of the world.

In situations like these, I am usually swept up with an immediate call-to-action—I want to do what I can to help those people in need! But, that feeling often dissipates over time, as I see the sheer size of the devastation. Over and over, news media outlets uncover new tragedies. As the disaster becomes larger and larger in scope, my sense of my own capacity to help shrinks, and shrinks, and shrinks in comparison. I suspect that many people have this same experience, and that is a shame! 

There is clear, unequivocal, scientific evidence suggesting that we should do whatever we can to help the people of Japan, and others-in-need more generally. Here are the three main reasons why:

(1) Giving Feels Good – We’ve all heard the saying “money can’t buy happiness.” This seems to be true when one considers that people who make a lot of money are about as happy as people with more modest incomes. But in 2008, researchers from Harvard Business School wondered if spending money on others (rather than on oneself) would promote happiness? Across three excellent studies, the researchers found that people whose spending habits included spending more on others (e.g., charitable donations, gift-giving) were happier than those who spent more on themselves. The researchers then demonstrated experimentally that giving to others increases happiness: The researchers gave study participants $25 and required them to either spend that money on a gift for themselves, OR a gift for another person. The participants who spent the money on a gift for someone else felt happier than the people who spent the money selfishly (Dunn et al., 2008). In essence, giving makes you feel good.

(2) Generosity is a Biological Imperative – We’re wired to be generous and charitable toward others, and not entertaining these desires would be denying our own genetic predispositions. Decades of research suggests that we are wired to be socially connected to others. Human beings have evolved to care and cooperate with each other: Our babies are too small to care for themselves, and adult humans are not physically strong enough to repel predators without help from others. In essence, our evolutionary history requires us to work together. Several studies provide evidence for a biological imperative of generosity. One such study involves researchers at UC Berkeley who discovered that a genetic variant of the oxytocin receptor gene—a hormone found in the blood—promotes greater compassion and empathy (Rodrigues, Saslow, et al., 2009). Our capacity to be generous and charitable toward others is a part of our genetic code!

(3) Giving is Actually Easy! – Classic research in psychology suggests that in the presence of fear, we are often paralyzed to act, and the video footage of a Tsunami approaching Japan is certainly fear-inducing (see it here). However, the right amount of fear can also motivate action, if it is accompanied by a no-nonsense description of what to do to help (Leventhal et al., 1965). Fortunately, helping is online, quick, and easy. Thus, the fear we experience when we see the devastation in Japan should increase our tendencies to act charitably. Here are some places where you can make donations:

Please give generously, now and in the future. Remember, giving is good… science says so!

What motivates you to give to charity or to help others? We'd love to hear more about it in the comments section.



  1. Nice post Michael, and I fundamentally agree.

    I'm interested in the biological imperative section though. Where does social identity theory fit into this?

    Seems to me that there is a certain evo-psych logic (and evidence base) to the in-group/out-group stuff, which should mean that we are more generous towards those who feel like they belong to "our" group rather than "their" group. And yet in the face of a disaster like this we seem quite capable of rising above it and our empathy shines through.


    Congrats on the new blog, by the way. Looking forward to future entries.

  2. Thanks Ally, that's a great comment, and one that we'll discuss in a blog post coming up next week! But in short, yes it is a paradox in some ways--in response to threats, humans have developed both a biological capacity to tend to others' needs AND to respond with hostility to competitors. Stay tuned!