Saturday, March 22, 2008

Doing Good, Feeling Good

Altruism has always been a puzzle to the scholars of selfishness, especially economists, who rely on people to act in their own interest. Now new studies suggest that giving money to others can make you happier than spending it on yourself.

In the journal Science, Harvard researchers report on questioning 632 Americans about how much they earn, what they do with it and, separately, how they rate their own happiness.

Weeks after getting large bonuses at work, employees who had given to others or to charity were happier than those who had bought stuff for themselves, regardless of how much they got. In another study, volunteers who were handed cash felt better after spending it on others rather than themselves.

"This may come as a surprise for economists," says one of them. "Often people don't know what really makes them happy."

In our post-Darwin world, science has tried, without much success, to explain altruism on the basis of group survival and in recent years even with brain scans. But the mystery remains, and it can be a source of comfort.

If they keep working on the problem long enough, it may turn out that the Golden Rule is more than a soupy concept after all.

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