In Who Really Cares?: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books), Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, examines charitable giving across America. He finds that people who donate money tend to be happier than people who don't, that the working poor tend to give a larger share of their earnings than people of higher income, and that conservatives tend to give more than liberals. He credits his seemingly counterintuitive conclusions to "strong families, church attendance, earned income (as opposed to state-subsidized income), and the belief that individuals, not government, offer the best solution to social ills."
Q: Why does it matter who gives to charity?
A: We have found differences between givers and nongivers. That's important because they go against stereotypes, and if we want reasonable discourse we have to get things right. The real reason that it matters-probably the most exciting avenue of research in psychology, economics, and charitable giving today-is really all about the beneficial impact that it has on people. Tangible evidence suggests that charitable giving makes people prosperous, healthy, and happy. And that on its own is a huge argument to protect institutions of giving in this country. We simply do best, as a nation, when people are free and they freely give.
Q: The working poor give a greater percentage of their income to charity than any other group in America. Why?
A: There is an appropriate intuition that American people are really generous, and they are. But you'd think that people give away a higher percentage of their income because they can afford to, and that's not true. It turns out that the people who give the biggest percentage of their income away are the working poor in America today. Now, the "working" part is key, because the nonworking poor who have the same incomes give the least. But the working poor who have low incomes but also have employment, particularly stable employment, give like crazy, and we should all take a giving lesson from them. They're also very income-mobile, and so there's this virtuous cycle of giving and success.
These people are hugely interested in issues of freedom and are pretty hostile to government income redistribution. We are told that the poor are a homogenous group in America, but they are homogenous neither behaviorally nor attitudinally.
Q: You report that people who give money charitably are 43 percent more likely to say they are "very happy" than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good. Why?
A: Psychologists will say that when people give they are empowered because they no longer feel like victims. They're part of the solution-voluntary solutions to social problems. It's hugely empowering. In other words, if I can help solve a problem of my own accord, through my own freedom, I can actually make myself happier. This gives me meaning; this gives me effectiveness; this gives me control.
Brain scientists have taken it one step further and noted that when people give they actually get opioids. Endorphins are released into their system. It's called the "helper's high," and it is actually medically observable. That complements the psychological explanations-there's something incredibly satisfying, inherently, about voluntary giving.
Nobody has ever reported any brain science suggesting that you get an endorphin rush when you pay your tax bill.