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Giving at Christmas may be good for you but it's a complicated business

Giving conveys caring and generosity - but it can undermine feelings of worth in recipients

If you are a bit financially embarrassed this Christmas, maybe you could offer some time in support of a favoured relative, cause or carol service. Photograph: PA

Much though you may wish to deny the passage of time, Christmas will soon be upon us. As well as the tinsel and office parties, Christmas invariably brings a focus on charitable giving.

Give with a glad heart this Christmas. Recent research in psychology has found that the act of giving may really be more beneficial for those who give than those who receive. 

Hitherto we thought that the benefits of giving were mostly enjoyed by those in receipt of the support. Recipients of largesse in terms of time or money benefited emotionally and practically in terms of new information and resources and the sense that others cared about their difficulties - offering a sense of social solidarity if you like. The reality it would seem is more complicated than this.

In longitudinal randomised controlled trials, a research approach many see as the gold standard, giving time to help others predicts those who were healthiest, happiest and live longest.

Charitable efforts

There are a couple of catches though. American social psychologists have shown that those who undertake their charitable efforts with this kind of self-focus in mind tend to reduce the positive impact of their generosity on their own health.

And in other experimental studies, the emotional benefits of pro-social spending were unleashed when givers were aware of their positive impact. In other words, giving money to charity leads to higher levels of happiness when we believe that the money is used to make a difference in the life of a recipient.

Many low status groups are vulnerable to disempowerment and dependency effects when offered help

And so the greatest gains in terms of health and happiness are seen where people orient to the value others are likely to accrue from what we contribute. In other studies, it is clear that giving time has equally positive consequences. So if you are a bit financially embarrassed this Christmas, maybe you could offer some time in support of a favoured relative, cause or carol service.

There is another catch. Charitable helping by definition rarely occurs between equals. The controversy around the BandAid lyrics (seen by some as patronising), as the 1984 festive charity single reached the ripe old age of 30, spoke to this issue.

Another in need

Helping often involves those with more resources redirecting them towards another in need. And whilst this conveys caring and generosity, it can signal dependence and undermine feelings of worth in recipients.

Being helped can be damaging to those who are offered help in the short term. More worryingly perhaps, it can also be damaging to good relationships in the longer term. And in situations where tensions already exist, an offer of help can heighten animosities.

"If you are a bit financially embarrassed this Christmas, maybe you could offer some time in support of a favoured relative, cause or carol service." File photograph: Getty Images

Two Israeli social psychologists first demonstrated this effect by looking at students working to take university entrance examinations. In a series of six experiments, responses to tutors were examined among these Jewish and Arab students.

Help was seen as problematic, and even undermined and hampered student performance when Jewish tutors offered help to Arab students. Though the problem can occur in reverse, subsequent experiments have demonstrated that many low status groups are vulnerable to disempowerment and dependency effects when offered help.

And then on the other hand, inverse phenomena appear to exist. Many of us are reluctant to seek help or take help from those we place higher in the pecking order – it can be seen as too costly to need help from the boss, a supervisor or maybe even a teacher or older relative.

The most useful help

In our own research with very poor communities in Nepal, we have found that the most useful help is the type of help that comes from within communities for the community. In these studies, in collaboration with Kathmandu University and Lalgadh Leprosy Hospital and Service Centre, help that builds people’s sense of their village or communities' own ability to respond to serious challenges, which in these examples have included major earthquakes and leprosy, really deliver.

Our research shows that the very poor and the very marginalised, those living with leprosy – such as widowed women and Dalits – benefit enormously from participation in co-operatives. The small amount of money earned from working in the co-operative is of course important. Equally important is that the money is earned often after learning a new skill such as felting or crotchet. So the crafters see themselves as workers earning their payment, rather than as a charity case. And finally it would appear that the social participation in everyday life that crafters enjoy as a consequence of their new employment is central to their feeling less stigmatised and marginal in their own villages.

So as the BandAid song suggests ‘Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time’. You’ll feel the better for it.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick