Post No.: 0824
Despite the health and happiness benefits of generosity – including the ‘helper’s high’ felt by the giver and the disproportionate level of joy felt by the recipient of even a quick, simple and cheap unexpected favour – it’s surprising why opportunities for generosity aren’t seized more often (like performing some random acts of kindness – see Post No.: 0546)?
Busyness, time pressures or stress are common barriers to generosity – the feeling that one cannot spare even a moment to help someone else, or that one’s problems are worse than others. Witnessing aggression or playing violent videogames can temporarily reduce generosity and increase aggression from oneself. Cultural ‘us versus them’ ingroup and outgroup biases affect our generosity too – we’re kinder to those deemed similar to us or from our own perceived ingroups; hence immigrants always tend to be automatically blamed for everything that’s wrong about anything! We therefore need to transcend this ‘us versus them’ attitude.
It’s also about a culture that treats kindness as weak. When we think of successful (as in rich) people, the first traits we tend to think about aren’t their generosity and selflessness but their ruthlessness and greed. So the idea of success needs to change from being selfish to being more community-minded.
As an aside – if giving makes us feel happier then does this mean that the rich, who can afford to give more, find it easier to feel happier unless they’re miserly or constantly stressed out? Maybe. But generosity can be expressed through giving our time, attention, words and warmth too.
It may appear ironic that generosity is greater, at least amongst a population on the whole, during hard times, such as during the pandemic. We see people living in poverty in ‘developing’ countries behaving so generously towards others in the same boat, when wealthy people working in the financial sector frequently lack empathy for the homeless people around them in the city centres where they work.
As givers, we might naïvely believe that complimenting others places them in a higher position than us, as if we’re worshipping them. But a bit of self-effacing humility is a social glue. A high status won’t necessarily mean we’ll be liked, or therefore respected when our backs are turned, anyway.
As third-parties, some people don’t like to be ‘shown up’ by a more generous person. But this feeling of insecurity and perceived knock to one’s reputation for being made to look less generous than someone else by comparison would only reveal how one knows one could give more. We shouldn’t try to knock others down for ‘showing us up’ with their generosity – we should lift our own reputations up by being more generous ourselves.
And as recipients, it’s strange to assume that someone is only being kind to us because they must’ve done something bad that they’re trying to compensate for, or they must be seeking something in return later. This could reveal the attitude of those who hold such assumptions though i.e. if we assume generosity always ultimately has a self-serving motive then should others be suspicious of us if we ever express an act of generosity?! People can be kind without a compensatory or ulterior motive. Not everyone tries to make up for their own wrongs, or will even admit that they’ve done anything wrong, anyway!
Feeling helpless – even though one feels empathy when witnessing suffering – reduces helping too, thus we need to cultivate more empowerment in oneself and in our communities. It’s not so much that we have a limited capacity for compassion – it’s just that we can switch off when all this suffering gets too much for us and we don’t know what to do, or the situation seems hopeless and we feel helpless to help everyone who’s suffering. We can also find the expected costs to help too high for us.
This is why a single identifiable victim can raise more altruism and generosity than mass suffering – we feel we can help a single victim out and make a difference to their life, whilst we can feel helpless to make a difference to thousands of people’s lives, or even feel detached from a ‘faceless crowd’ of sufferers. This is why donations are more forthcoming if a charity helps identify and humanise, or put a face and name to, a victim or two out of the thousands in a crisis, and explains specifically how people’s donations will make a positive difference to these particular sufferers’ lives. Via identifying individuals and humanising them rather than presenting an overwhelming crowd or statistic – this is how thousands can be eventually saved. Woof.
Encourage the sense that helping, even a little, will make a difference and streamline the odds of tackling a crisis or contribute towards achieving a cause’s overall objective. Make their contribution options simple and quick (e.g. text in a donation). Some people like a little recognition for their donations (e.g. a badge) but the best feeling for a donor is knowing what specific real-world difference they’ve made to a recipient, so highlight this (e.g. one malaria net will save 5 children for 5 years).
Mindfulness can help reduce people’s fears of feeling anxious for others or the feeling of fatigue when faced with suffering. Mindfulness is about attending to the present and accepting one’s experiences and feelings without judging them – to increase compassion, we must be in the present and accept our empathy for the suffering of others rather than switch off if one thinks it’ll get too much to handle.
Don’t peer-pressure donations though, as this may work temporarily but backfire in the long-term. Maybe stressing that it’s entirely the person’s choice will make them feel a closer connection with those they voluntarily help too. Some people think that giving feels bad because they’ve experienced some coerced, peer-pressured or obligated giving. (It’s like tips/gratuities feel less about rewarding good service in countries where they’re considered expected – as in rude to not give it instead of generous to give it.) To feel the benefits of generosity, it needs to be your own heart and choice. However, for charities, just leaving people to give if they feel like it doesn’t usually work – thus charities must craft appeals that encourage people to give i.e. they need to actively ask for help; without making people feel forced into it.
Wealthier people on average donate a smaller percentage of their wealth to charities compared to the general population on average. (Relatedly, many wealthy people aggressively avoid paying their fair percentage of taxes.) The rich donate even less if they cluster together i.e. insulate themselves from those much poorer than them. But they’ll donate more if they live in more socio-economically diverse communities. Hence decreasing insularity helps immensely.
Other possible solutions to increase empathy for the poor are poverty simulators, lowering the feelings of one’s inflated status (not bullying people down but raising/encouraging people to be more modest), volunteering, banishing unpaid internships, progressive taxation systems, a better redistribution of wealth, and maybe national service, to ultimately break down the notion of stratified social classes.
The rich aren’t inherently bad people of course – it’s mostly the context, not one’s personality i.e. the aloofness could inflict almost anyone who comes into enormous wealth. Thus their environment needs to change to make them less insular. It’s difficult to create large socio-economically diverse communities though because groups (of all kinds) tend to self-segregate. Even in cities where inequality tends to be starkest, the poor and rich barely mix or interact with each other even though they’re geographically very close to each other. But decreasing levels of insularity remains the main goal.
If one feels that one doesn’t need anyone else because one has plenty of money to pay to secure things for oneself, then there’s less need to be able to read other people’s emotions or feel what they feel; not just concerning relatively poorer people but anyone. An attitude that people are only to be used for personal gain, that no one is to be genuinely trusted as a friend, that people are only incentivised via money or punishments, and that maybe others are treating them in the same way – leads to loneliness too. One can be physically surrounded by others yet still feel lonely – loneliness is a perceived social isolation i.e. it’s not about the physical proximity with others or the quantity of relations but the quality of those relationships. And a sense of loneliness negatively affects happiness in societies. Even most of those who prefer to be physically alone like to have the psychological feeling that trusted people are out there for them if and when they ever need them.
It’s more the problem of the illusory superiority bias than having lots of money though. In general, it’s not lonely at the top unless one is overly self-focused – and overly self-focused people can be either rich or poor – but it’s just that relative wealth can feed an ego and allow someone to live in a place that’s far from the ‘hoi polloi’ more easily. This is probably why the most egalitarian, rather than the richest or poorest, countries tend to be the happiest in the world – equality is the most important factor once a certain standard of living is achieved. Equality and compassion (caring to help lift the welfare of the relatively poor) go paw-in-paw. Trust and cohesion are vital for happiness too, and are higher in more equal countries. Happiness inequality might be attributable to income inequality or political polarisation.
However the problem is that inequity is self-perpetuating, as the rich get richer and so, generally, care less and less about the rest. It’s hierarchical, not capitalist cultures per se, that are the problem.
Improve welfare, get the furry basics right first, and the rest will arguably follow – clean water, shelter, universal/affordable healthcare, education, vaccinations, electricity and equal rights for all have positive knock-on effects and help create a virtuous cycle. International aid does work – it has been making a positive difference. Unforeseeable tragedies and tough challenges will continue to happen but charities have helped people’s lives and will continue to do so.
A sense of social and economic equity is key to happiness and life satisfaction. A supportive government – in terms of one that looks after us via our healthcare needs, education, welfare, childcare needs, the implementation and enforcement of equal opportunity and non-discrimination laws, and safeguards for our future interests (such as the natural environment, low public debt, good pension policies), for example – builds our trust in institutions and in turn each other, it allows us to spend less time worrying about meeting basic needs so that we can pursue higher needs, and makes us feel valued in our communities; which in turn motivates us to be productive and give back economically.
We need to feel like we can trust the authorities when it comes to behaving for the greater community good though, like obeying social distancing rules or other things that need unity to beat. Hypocritical politicians are the worst!
More equality itself reduces stress because when we make our social comparisons with others, the perceived gap between the richest and us will be smaller. The poorest won’t feel as isolated from the rest compared to in a society where inequality is wider. Crime will consequently reduce because more people will feel that they have self-worth and respect from others because no one’s socio-economic status will be too far below everyone else’s. ‘Self-medication’ behaviours, like drug abuse, gambling or other risky behaviours, to combat these stresses will therefore decrease too. Less stress might also reduce prejudice against immigrants and other minorities since there’s less need to find people to scapegoat for one’s problems.
Woof. These are all arguments for government policies that monitor and prioritise measures for well-being and not just GDP. And it demonstrates how public expenditure and stronger welfare policies for achieving greater social and economic equity are worth it!