Generous Child

“It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.” —Nigerian proverb

One of the most beautiful things about true generosity is that it comes from the heart. More than what you give, it is about being giving— approaching the world and your relationships with a feeling of abundance and a readiness to give what you can to make others’ lives even just a little bit better.

What is generosity, really?

According to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project, generosity is “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.”

This definition is really helpful because it breaks down generosity into two essential components:

1) Giving good things to others

Despite what many people might think, it doesn’t take a large donation to be generous. You can be generous in many ways: with your time, with your love and support, with your things. All it takes is giving a good thing (however you define that!) to someone else.

2) Giving them freely and abundantly

Giving freely means giving without reservations, without strings attached or any expectations of being given anything in return. Giving abundantly means giving often and from a place where you feel that you have enough of what you want to give — a smile, a hot meal, a moment from your day — for yourself and for others. This is what makes giving a gift, rather than a burden.

What can science tell us about generosity?

The Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an extensive review of The Science of Generosity. Here are a few of their key takeaways.

Giving makes you happy.

People report being happier when they spend money on others rather than themselves, both in the lab and in the real world, regardless of the amount of money (even $5 was enough to make a difference!). A study with male undergraduates found that helping other students pick up spilled objects uplifted their mood, and a study with over 29,000 adults found that people who volunteered for religious organizations were happier than people who did not.

Happiness makes you give.

Students who recalled a time they had spent money on someone else felt happier. What’s more, those that reported feeling happiest were most likely to spend money given to them during the experiment on someone else, suggesting a positive feedback loop between happiness and giving. This may apply across cultures too — data from 136 countries showed that people who give to charity are happier. In another study, participants who completed a writing task that made them feel positive feelings were more motivated to perform acts of kindness for others than participants who completed a neutral writing task.

Giving is good for your health.

A study of 1,118 diverse older adults in New York City found that giving social support was associated with better health, and that more generous people had better health regardless of the support that they themselves received. Another study found that participants who performed acts of kindness for others over a period of six weeks reported more positive emotions and gene transcriptional changes that are associated with positive health outcomes. Giving support can also reduce your stress response by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity.

Giving is good for your relationships.

A daily diary study with 69 romantic couples found that acts of putting your partner first, or acts of sacrifice, were associated with greater positive emotions. Moreover, the people who did not expect or want sacrifice in return for their own reported the greatest relationship satisfaction.

Emotions that connect you to others or to the natural world inspire generosity.

Empathy, compassion, connectedness, and gratitude— emotions that connect you to others — have been found to motivate people to cooperate more, give more, and help more. Awe and elevation, emotions that take you outside of yourself, were also found to result in greater willingness to volunteer and help strangers.

How can we cultivate generosity through digital media?

1) Nurture emotions that support generosity.Focus on ways that media might be able to prompt or predispose us to the emotions that result in a more generous mindset: happiness, empathy, compassion, connectedness, gratitude, awe, and elation. This insight has deep roots in philosophical and religious traditions as well. According to the Dalai Lama XIV, “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.”

2) Tie generosity into identity.Research suggests that people are more willing to give when they see generosity as a part of who they are. Perhaps digital media can ask us to perform small acts of kindness for others, or point out the things we already do, and redefine generosity as something that we already have within us.

3) Build in reflection.A meta-analysis showed that community service only had positive effects on adolescent’s academic, personal, social, and civic achievement when they reflected on the meaning of the experiences. Maximize the benefits of giving by prompting moments of reflection.

4) Teach mindful giving. Most of us know that giving is good, but we don’t necessarily know how to give freely or abundantly. Digital media might be able to help teach us how by giving structured cues that encourage us to step outside of ourselves, to give without needing to be appreciated for it, or needing it to be received in a certain way. Letting go of expectations and learning how to give simply because it feels good and is part of who you want to be in the world can be a source of growth and joy.

5) Create community. Part of the power of giving is the positive ripple effect it can have in our relationships and community. Generosity is contagious. Teenagers give more when they think their peers also give, and people also feel good (even elated!) when witnessing acts of kindness that others perform. By connecting us in new and creative ways, digital media can help start and spread those ripples.

Generosity as a strength

Performing even the smallest acts of generosity can make a difference in your health and happiness. Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and writer, goes even farther. She argues fiercely and beautifully that generosity is a strength, “a powerful force, an inner resource, a real tool for changing how we relate to ourselves, to others and to our world.”

Rather than passively “giving up” something for someone else, generosity is really about deciding to “let go.” It is freeing and empowering to give without feeling attached to an outcome or a need to be appreciated for it. Even better, the more you give love and generosity, the more you inspire love and generosity in others. Here lies the true strength in generosity. Not only can it make us happier and healthier as individuals, but it can be a powerful tool for positive change in our relationships, community, and society.

Laura Hazlett is a first year PhD student in Social Psychology at UCLA. She studies how social connection affects our brains and bodies, and why it has such a powerful effect on our health. In her free time, Laura loves cooking for friends, going for long runs, listening to her favorite podcasts, and traveling.

Laura is part of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab:

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.


Generosity in Children

“It is better to give than to receive.”

We all grew up hearing this age-old adage, and most parents still hope to instill this message of compassion in their children. But are they accomplishing that goal? Do today’s youth place a higher value on giving to others than on satisfying their own personal interests and` needs? A 2017 Harvard Graduate School of Education study suggests the answer to that question is “no.” The researchers asked 10,000 middle and high school students across the U.S. to prioritize their values, and found that 80% of the students chose personal achievement and happiness over caring for others.

This is concerning – especially in a world filled with divisiveness and growing social and racial tensions. observing someone else engage in generous behaviour enhances children's own generosity. Now, more than ever, we need to be raising a generation of children who are empathic and kind, who genuinely care about the welfare of others, and who generously give to those in need.

How can we do this? What role can children’s media play in helping today’s youth become more caring and generous citizens?

One insight comes from controlled laboratory studies that have long supported the notion that observing someone else engage in generous behavior enhances children’s own generosity .

This robust finding has been shown to apply to both boys and girls, children of all ages, races, and socio-economic statuses. Additionally, the positive effect of observing a generous model has been shown when live models are used, videotaped models, and characters on tv shows.

Creators of children’s media are well-positioned to take advantage of this well-documented phenomenon by featuring characters who themselves display and model generous behavior. Characters in television shows, movies, story-driven games, apps, online videos, ebooks, etc. hold the potential to influence how kind and generous children become.

But let’s dig a bit deeper and ask questions to help fine-tune how media characters can best influence children’s generosity:

What type of media characters will be most effective?

The more viewers connect with and relate to media characters, the more they will want to become like them. In the literature, this is referred to as “wishful identification”, and is strengthened when viewers regard media characters as similar to themselves in terms of demographic features (e.g., gender, race, and age). Perceiving demographic similarities tends to enhance viewers’ desires to emulate media characters through behavior, and by adopting their attitudes and values. Research has also found that wishful identification is enhanced when media characters are seen as kind and helpful, which is promising, given how challenging it can be to cover all your demographic bases. This suggests that generosity, in and of itself, will appeal to viewers and draw them closer to characters who display it.

Does it matter what characters in shows or apps  say or do when modeling generosity?

Preaching about generosity doesn’t work with kids.

It’s not enough to be told that generosity is important and expected, kids need to see it in action to buy into its virtues.

In a classic experiment, school-age kids were given the opportunity to donate their winnings from a game to children in poverty. The students first watched a role model play the same game either generously or selfishly. Then they listened to the model preach about either generosity or about selfishness. Those kids who observed the model behave generously, regardless of what the model said, donated considerably more than the norm. This was true even when the model preached the virtues of selfishness. Similarly, regardless of the model’s words, those kids who observed the model behaving selfishly donated considerably less than the norm. The bottom line: children learn generosity not by listening to what role models say, but by observing what they do.

The message for media creators hoping to instill generosity in kids is clear: Make the message of generosity behavioral rather than verbal. Showing media characters behaving generously will always be more effective than having them talk about generosity and its virtues.

How should other characters respond to generous behavior?

We know that responses to children’s behavior can strongly affect their future behavior. For instance, to increase children’s motivation and achievement behavior, research clearly points to the value of reinforcing effort or behavior over ability and character. In the case of generosity, however, the opposite is true: Children are more likely to repeat a generous act if their character has been praised (“You are a generous person”) rather than the behavior itself (“That was a generous thing you did”). The reason being, when someone is told they are generous, it is internalized, and over time can become part of their identity. This type of character praise appears to be especially influential during critical periods of development, like adolescence, when the formation of a strong sense of identity is just as crucial.  

This finding suggests that when media characters behave with generosity, other characters should explicitly comment on and praise their generous nature rather than the behavior itself.

This simple adjustment in dialogue and storyline can be powerful. Similarly, when apps or online games are developed with the goal of promoting generosity, the specific reinforcement offered to players when their responses are correct or positive (i.e., in keeping with the generosity message of the game) should always be character praise.

Aside from presenting great characters and role models for children to learn from and emulate, there are other ways in which the media can facilitate generosity. A number of research findings that seem particularly informative in this regard come from the field of neuroscience.  

Recently, brain research on young children discovered that generosity was increased, only when the children were thoughtfully reflecting upon the moral behavior of others. This is fascinating, and suggests that interactive media properties with built-in opportunities for kids to think about and reflect on what a character is doing, and to assess for themselves the rightness or wrongness of the act, will be most effective at activating generosity in the child brain.

An example, while not specifically addressing generosity per se, is The Social Express, a media property that features animated interactive webisodes that encourage kids to think about, analyze, and practice real-life social interactions. Efforts to create interactive media properties of this kind that engage and activate kids’ thinking about generosity would prove particularly fruitful.

Commonsense media is another source for looking for inspiration for app or linear content creators. Brainstorm from this list of gratitude activities and tools for students. activities and tools for students.

And finally, a personal favorite research finding with respect to generosity, and one that has been well-documented across various studies: Generosity leads to happiness. Neuroscientists have even gone so far as to identify the specific brain mechanisms responsible for this direct link between generosity and happiness. We are biologically predisposed for generosity.

I particularly love this finding because it implies that if we can get kids to engage in acts of generosity, we can hopefully activate a self-sustaining cycle of giving: Generosity leads to happiness, which itself serves as a powerful and natural reinforcer that increases the likelihood of future generosity, in turn leading to more happiness, and more generosity…and on and on.

So can children’s media play a role in triggering this self-perpetuating system? And are there ways to get children to behave generously as part of the media experience? Yes; an interesting media property that accomplishes this goal is Freerice, an ad-supported, free-to-play website that allows players to donate to charities by playing multiple-choice quiz games. For every question answered correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated to people in need through the World Food Programme. Anyone who has played Freerice knows how addictive it can be; to see onscreen the rice you have donated, and to know that someone in need will receive food because of something simple you just did, feels truly great and rewarding.

Which brings us back to where we started: “It is better to give than to receive.” And while today’s youth may not always know or believe that, hopefully tomorrow’s media will help them discover its truth.

Dr. Lynn Oldershaw is a developmental psychologist who has worked for the past 18 years in children’s media, first as an Executive in Charge of Production for Programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and currently as a children’s media content consultant for production companies in Canada, the US, and Europe.

Prior to working in children’s programming, Dr. Oldershaw was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and was the Research Director of CAMH’s Child Psychiatry Program in Toronto.   Her research and clinical work focused on the factors that contribute to the social, emotional and intellectual development of children.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.