Published in: Research | Nov. 7, 2019

Study: It Pays to Be Generous

Graphic with generosity and life satisfaction text.

How satisfied are you with your life? It's probably not a question you think about very often. But it's an important one.

Here's another one: Do you want to be more satisfied with your life? A recent study by The Ascent shows how you might be able to do that. Generosity comes in many forms, but no matter how you practice giving, it could be the key to a happier life.

High-generosity people were 23% more likely to be satisfied with their lives overall -- but they were also happier with their relationships, their jobs, their possessions, and more.

Let's dive into the data to see just how much happier generous people are.

Summary of key findings

  • More high-generosity respondents reported being satisfied with life and being happy daily than low-generosity respondents.
  • People who are more generous are more likely to believe that life is meaningful, be optimistic, and be proud of who they are.
  • Generous respondents reported higher scores on the closeness of their relationships, their number of friends, and the number of friends who would help them out of tough situations.
  • High-generosity respondents were happier with every factor relating to their jobs and careers.
  • Positive measures of mental and physical health were correlated with being generous.

What does it mean to be generous?

We asked over 1,000 Americans about how satisfied they were with various parts of their lives. We also asked them how generous they were. Each participant filled out the Adapted Self-Report Altruism Scale, which asks whether a respondent would engage in 14 different generous behaviors.

(For more information on the scale, check out Rushton, Chrisjohn, and Fekken (1981).)

Here are a few of the items:

  • I would give directions to someone I did not know.
  • I would donate clothes or goods to a charity.
  • I would voluntarily look after a neighbor's pet or children without being paid.

Respondents had to say whether they would exhibit those behaviors "never," "once," "more than once," "often," or "very often." Each of these responses was assigned a point value (never = 0, once = 1, more than once = 2, and so on).

To determine a respondent's generosity score, we looked at the total value of all their answers. Those who scored above the 75th percentile were put in the high-generosity group. Those below the 25th percentile were our low-generosity group.

After separating the groups, we took a look at how they answered our questions about satisfaction with their lives. And the responses were very interesting.

Satisfaction through selflessness

Graphic of 74% of high-generosity people said they were satisfied with their life overall, compared to 60% of low-generosity folks.

High-generosity respondents were more than twice as likely to be "very satisfied" with their life.

They say a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. When our respondents decided to spread their light through generosity, they actually gained something: 74% of high-generosity people said they were satisfied with their life overall, compared to 60% of low-generosity folks.

And the difference is even more pronounced when looking at people who were "very satisfied" with their life. High-generosity people were more than twice as likely to be in that group.

Graphic showing high-generosity people were more satisfied than low-generosity respondents in every corner of their lives.

When we broke the data down, high-generosity people were more satisfied than low-generosity respondents in every corner of their lives. The former group reported higher rates of satisfaction with their friendships, family connections, careers, and more.

Finances proved to be the most difficult area for both groups, although low-generosity respondents were significantly less happy. 29% were happy with their monetary situation versus 46% of high-generosity people.

Graphic showing 77% of high-generosity respondents reported feeling happy daily, compared to 62% of their low-generosity counterparts.

High-generosity respondents were almost three times as likely to be "very happy" every day.

Generous people aren't just happier overall -- they're also happier more often. 77% of high-generosity respondents reported feeling happy daily, compared to 62% of their low-generosity counterparts (for an average of 72%).

When looking at people who were "very happy" every day, the gap widened. Generous people were almost three times as likely to report being happy every day than less generous people.

There could be many reasons for this, but free time is likely one of them. Mogilner, Chance, and Norton (2012) found that people who spent time helping others said they felt like they had more time on their hands -- and enjoying a fair amount of leisure time is a strong determining factor for overall happiness (Sharif, Mogilner, and Hershfield, 2018).

Finding meaning in the madness

Graphic showing more than 80% of high-generosity respondents felt life was meaningful, compared to 60% who fell into the less-generous category.

High-generosity respondents were almost three times as likely to have a "very meaningful" life.

Leading a meaningful life is a lofty goal -- but it's reachable. Especially if you make a point to be generous.

More than 80% of high-generosity respondents felt life was meaningful, compared to 60% who fell into the less-generous category. And when it came to people who said they had a "very meaningful" life, high-generosity people outnumbered low-generosity people by almost three to one.

Graphic showing high-generosity respondents reported sunny attitudes about life more frequently than low-generosity individuals.

Do you find yourself looking on the bright side of life, even when dark clouds are rolling in? Keep at it -- your outlook might actually be good for your health (Levi and Bavishi, 2018). And being generous makes it easier.

High-generosity respondents reported sunny attitudes about life more frequently than low-generosity individuals. Sentiments like "I live a good life" and "I am optimistic about my future" resonated much more among the former group. They were also more likely to believe that other people were inherently good, too (60% versus 39% of low-generosity respondents).

Family and friends

Graphic showing 66% reported feeling close to people they know, compared to only half of less-generous respondents.

Close relationships can have a positive effect on health and longevity, according to the American Psychological Association. Ties to family and friends can help diminish the effects of stress during tough times, bolster self-esteem, and act as a gateway to other health-promoting behaviors.

Given the importance of feeling close to others, people who are more generous may reap more rewards: 66% reported feeling close to people they know, compared to only half of less-generous respondents.

Graphic showing on average, generous people reported having slightly more close friends with 3.2 compared to 2.6 for less-generous people.

On average, generous people reported having slightly more close friends with 3.2 compared to 2.6 for less-generous people. They were also more likely to have a best friend, although 32% of respondents overall didn't have one.

Low-generosity people were more than twice as likely to feel "not at all close" with anybody they knew.

Graphic showing besides having stronger connections and more close friends, high-generosity respondents reported having more people they could count on for various favors and support.

Besides having stronger connections and more close friends, high-generosity respondents reported having more people they could count on for various favors and support.

For example, they counted an average of 5.1 people who would visit them in the hospital, compared to 3.4 among low-generosity people. They also counted more friends who would help them move, drive them to the airport, loan them $1,000 if they needed it, and more.

Graphic showing low-generosity people were more than twice as likely to have nobody to get them to or from the airport or help them move, and 53% couldn't name someone who would lend them $1,000.

Having just one friend who's there for you can make a world of difference. But sometimes we're left with nobody we can count on, and low-generosity respondents found themselves in this situation more frequently. For example, they were more than twice as likely to have nobody to get them to or from the airport or help them move, and 53% couldn't name someone who would lend them $1,000.

Among those in a relationship, generosity seemed to have little to do with happiness: 87% of high-generosity people said they felt satisfied with their relationship, compared to 80% of low-generosity people. However, the real nuance revealed itself when it came to being "very satisfied": Just 27% of low-generosity respondents identified with the feeling, compared to 45% of more generous folks.

Attitude of gratitude

Graphic showing high-generosity respondents reported higher rates of satisfaction with their possessions (75% versus 60%), homes (73% versus 56%), and vehicles (72% versus 55%).

The level of gratitude we feel is determined by a combination of genes, brain chemistry, and personality traits (UC Berkeley, 2018). But you may be able to overcome physiological predispositions to dissatisfaction with a little selflessness.

High-generosity respondents reported higher rates of satisfaction with their possessions (75% versus 60%), homes (73% versus 56%), and vehicles (72% versus 55%). They were also less likely to feel they'd be happier if they had more money (67% versus 80%).

Graphics shows 70% of high-generosity people felt satisfied with their work, compared to 49% of low-generosity respondents.

High-generosity respondents were more than twice as likely to be "very satisfied" with their career.

The way we feel about our jobs varies from week to week, but high-generosity people were much happier in their career overall. 70% felt satisfied with their work, compared to 49% of low-generosity respondents.

Just like life in general, people who were more generous were more likely to say that they were "very satisfied" with their work than those who were less generous.

Graphic shows high-generosity respondents were happier with their employer's ethics and values, their personal contributions to society, and their at-work relationships than low-generosity employees.

Beyond what people do at their desks, company values and work environments play a big role in job satisfaction. High-generosity respondents were happier with their employer's ethics and values, their personal contributions to society, and their at-work relationships than low-generosity employees.

Fortunately, more than half of the latter group was satisfied with most of these factors -- they only narrowly missed the mark when it came to making a societal contribution (47%).

Graphic showing 68% said they found real enjoyment in their job, compared to 42% of low-generosity respondents, and 65% were seldom bored (compared to 45%).

Many people have a love-hate relationship with their work. Some days they're flying high and self-actualizing like a champion, while other days are barely tolerable. Despite these ups and downs, high-generosity people were more likely to love their jobs.

68% said they found real enjoyment in their job, compared to 42% of low-generosity respondents, and 65% were seldom bored (compared to 45%). They were also more likely to feel enthusiastic about work most days and like their job more than the average person.

Graphic showing while an impressive 64% of all respondents said they felt healthy every day, the high-generosity group came out on top (70% versus 54%).

While an impressive 64% of all respondents said they felt healthy every day, the high-generosity group came out on top (70% versus 54%). Feeling healthy is influenced by many things, but exercise and a good diet are big players -- and they were correlated with generosity, too.

Graphic showing high-generosity people were more likely to exercise than less-generous folks (65% versus 55%) and more likely to eat a healthy diet (62% versus 45%).

Generosity is typically seen as being kind and giving to others -- but how giving were our respondents when it came to taking time for their own bodies and minds? High-generosity people were more likely to exercise than less-generous folks (65% versus 55%) and more likely to eat a healthy diet (62% versus 45%).

Graphic showing high-generous respondents experienced feelings of hopelessness, apathy, depression, disinterest, laziness, and anxiety less often than their less-generous counterparts to varying degrees.

There's no single cause of apathy, stress, and depression. Genetics, stressful life circumstances, brain chemistry, and medical issues all contribute to the mix (Harvard Health, 2019). But, among our respondents, those who were more generous had a bit of an advantage.

They experienced feelings of hopelessness, apathy, depression, disinterest, laziness, and anxiety less often than their less-generous counterparts to varying degrees. Our study suggests that people who made selflessness a habit experienced less negativity in their lives.

The power of selflessness

Our survey covered a lot of ground, and generosity proved to be a net positive in every area of people's lives.

High-generosity respondents were happier, enjoyed closer relationships with their loved ones, had more close friends, and felt more satisfied with their personal possessions, to name a few things.

They also experienced higher levels of career satisfaction and lower rates of hopelessness, worry, and disinterest. That's the life-changing power of generosity.

Methodology

For this study, The Ascent conducted an online survey of 1,010 people in the U.S. To ensure that respondents took the survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question. Margin of error is 3% with a 95% confidence interval.

In many cases, questions and responses have been rephrased for clarity or brevity. To help ensure statistical accuracy, outliers were removed where appropriate. These data rely on self-reporting, and strict statistical testing has not been performed.

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