Posted by c.garnett
This particular idiom has its origins from the Bible but despite these religious beginnings many people, including those without religious beliefs, use the saying, ‘it is better to give than to receive’. The phrase itself is pretty self-explanatory and is often thrown about at Christmas time, particularly to small children, to emphasise the importance of giving presents rather than trying to ensure that they get everything they want on their Christmas list. I can still vividly remember the first time I experienced the truth behind this saying. It was a Christmas many years ago and I had made my mum what I believed to be a truly incredible Christmas present, whether or not it was is beside the point! Had I been given the choice between giving it to her and receiving my present I would have gone for the former, no questions asked (a sentiment nicely portrayed in last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert).
The question of interest here is whether there is any evidence to show that we do in fact feel better when giving than receiving and if so, why that might be. A recent study by Aknin, Hamlin and Dunn looked at these pro-social acts in toddlers. They did indeed find that toddlers were happier when giving treats to others rather than receiving the treats, which extended to costly giving when they forfeited their own treat. The authors suggest that this emotionally rewarding behaviour is a proximate mechanism for human co-operation in the groups that we are part of.
An earlier study looked at the effect of income on happiness and found that how we spend our money could be at least as important as our income itself. Dunn, Aknin and Norton found that, regardless of income, spending more of it on others made you feel happier and that people randomly assigned to spend money on others felt happier than those who were assigned to spend it on themselves. So, not only do we feel happier when we give things rather than receiving them but this appears to start at a young age, possibly as a way of maintaining human co-operation.
However, this is assuming that the phrase means ‘better’ is equivalent to ‘happier’ though this is perhaps up for interpretation. Some people use the word in this context to mean virtuous and morally good which in turn seems to imply that you’re not doing it for your own (selfish) benefit of feeling happier. Our preference to give presents and the like, instead of receive them, is because this behaviour makes us feel happy which isn’t virtuous in the traditional sense as it’s for our own benefit. So I do agree with this phrase, that it is better to give than to receive, even if that’s only because it will make us feel happier by doing so.