Motivation Counts, Sharing Makes You Happy
Why do we like to give? Because, it turns out, sharing makes us happy. And because we feel happy, we want to share more.
Dr. Zhen Wu and his colleagues examined a group of preschool children in China, and reported their findings in Frontiers in Psychology, stating that prosocial sharing is emotionally rewarding, which leads to further prosocial actions.
“Their study is especially intriguing since little children are often encouraged to share, but very little is known about whether they benefit emotionally from such sharing,” says Science writer Srividya Sundaresan.
Dr. Wu and colleagues compared positive facial expressions (as a measure of happiness) in 3 and 5 year old children who performed a sharing task, which consisted of sharing stickers with their peers.
The experiment was set up such that the children were in two sharing groups: one group that shared voluntarily, and the other because they felt obligated to do so.
Both 3 and 5 year olds shared more when they were obligated to share than when it was voluntary. However, such obligated sharing did not make them happy.
Interestingly, both 3 and 5 year olds showed greater happiness when they gave stickers away voluntarily, than when they kept them for themselves.
“So, it seems that the motivation to give does count,” explains Dr. Wu, “and it also suggests that it is unrealistic to expect a very young child to share under pressure and be happy about it!”
Puzzle that has fascinated social scientists for decades
Traditional economic theory posits that human beings are rational, and are motivated by self-interest. However, contrary to this perspective, humans routinely show prosocial behaviours that require them to incur personal costs to benefit others, such as donating, engaging in charitable activities, and saving strangers’ lives.
One intriguing claim is that an affective self-reward mechanism helps people maintain prosocial behavior. That is, engaging in prosocial actions promotes positive mood, which in turn leads to further prosocial behaviour; such a positive-feedback loop offers a path to sustain prosocial behavior.
In support of this hypothesis, recent studies with adults have shown that spending money on others leads to greater happiness than spending money on themselves.