Why Do We Give?

Why is it that we give to others around the holiday season? Do we instinctively feel an innate desire (at the same time every year) to do something nice for them? Are we succumbing to marketing forces and great sales during the season of giving? Do we fear what would happen if we did not give gifts each December? (Tongue-in-cheek, this may be the case for some individuals.) Like a good scientist (Santa, I hope you are listening), I need to see what stories the data tell.

Analyzing a large community dataset, I found that the personality characteristic with the greatest relationship to those self-described as “giving” is the Hogan personality scale Interpersonal Sensitivity. This scale measures the degree to which a person is socially sensitive, perceptive, tactful, and skilled at maintaining relationships. This doesn’t necessarily answer whether we are sensitive and perceptive and thus react by giving gifts, or whether we give gifts to proactively build and maintain relationships. Nonetheless, this does suggest that, overall, those who are more socially sensitive and skilled at building and maintaining relationships are also self-described as giving.

Giving was also positively associated with good health practices and, when asked “How would you rate your health now?” giving individuals rated their health status more favorably than non-giving individuals. Finally, this study found that self-described “giving” individuals more positively endorsed the item “I am happy with my life.” Could it be that people in better mental and physical health are more likely to give? Perhaps. Conversely, giving to others may actually be what helps us to feel good. Either way, these results suggest that giving is associated with good health, and similar research corroborates a positive relationship between social relationships and health (e.g., House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988).

There are a couple key take-aways from these findings. Some people may be more pre-disposed to give during the holiday season based on their personality. However, if you don’t score high on the Interpersonal Sensitivity scale, don’t worry. Although not all individuals have innate tendencies driving them to give to others, overall those who are self-described as giving individuals are more likely to rate their current health status favorably and to be happy with their life.

So do we really give entirely for the benefit of others? Or do we attain some benefits ourselves through giving, such as positive emotions that motivate us to continue giving? Whatever the cause, the outcome of giving is likely to be positive for both the giver and recipient. So go ahead, and give a little.