Making time for people brings us happiness on the side. That’s what I wrote in my post on 20th Feb 2015, "In pursuit of happiness". But just how powerful is this link? Are we really better off when we give into the lives of others? Are other people better off? Are we all as a community better off?
We can test it out by looking at data from the ‘Citizenship Survey.’ Over 38,000 people in England and Wales were interviewed face to face between 2007 and 2011. They were asked questions about their giving, and also about their community. The Citizenship Survey also included official statistics regarding the deprivation levels of every ward in which the people were interviewed. With this data then, we can make some credible assessments regarding whether giving behaviors in a region relate to how well those regions are doing (see fig.1).
Fig1: The correlations between giving behaviors and community welfare (all correlations are statistically significant).
Key:These diagrams give a flavor of just how closely giving behaviors are linked to community wellbeing. Firstly we see that giving and trust go together. ‘Giving’ sends a message of care for others, which is a trustworthy behavior and stimulates trust in others. Having said that, ‘giving’ and ‘trust’ are also mutually reinforcing and neither is likely to keep going for long without the other. Secondly we see how giving is linked to reduced deprivation. For a start giving is a way of counteracting deprivation and so people in giving/supportive networks are likely to be doing better than people without them. As before though, ‘giving’ and ‘low deprivation’ might also be mutually reinforcing; well situated people in a pleasant social environment are freed up to give. (Source: Citizenship Survey data, 2008-2011. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Supplied by the UK Data Archive. Calculations drawn from a paper presented by Zischka at ‘Relational Academics,’ September 2015, Cambridge.)
We can test the same trust and deprivation data against other variables that might potentially explain why welfare differs in different regions. Try for example average income, health, education, employment or ethnic mix – all of which are known to be important social variables affecting welfare. The data indicates that none of these could predict trust and deprivation quite as precisely as giving behaviors could. In other words, whether or not people ‘give’ is right up there with the very most important socio-economic indicators of wellbeing.
And these figures are just a start. Many other studies have been carried out to show that people who give time or money away to others actually feel better afterwards than those who spend that same time or money on their own private consumption. Personal consumption makes people feel good for the moment, but (unless that consumption is essential to life) the feeling does not last for long. However, small, repeated expenditures of time and money with or for other people stack up to a greater sense of wellbeing over time.
So why is this? What is it about giving that makes such a difference? The key is the link between giving and relationship. Relationships take time and money to build, and they won’t go far without a bit of give and take. Giving, when it comes down to it, is an indication that the giver is including other people in the decisions they make over the way they spend their time and money, and it’s this consideration for others that comprises the heart of relationship. To turn this around, we can tell how good a relationship is by whether or not a person is putting time and money into others instead of spending exclusively on him or herself. Good relationships and giving people go with better outcomes for the community. Note that giving does not guarantee a return to the giver, and to expect one is to miss the point, but we can see that our giving makes the world a little bit better for someone else. This leaves the eternal question of priorities for every individual to grapple with: what really matters to me, me or us? We shouldn’t just be looking at what we get out of the system – let’s also measure what we put into it!
By Lorna Zischka