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Warm glow of giving to appease conscience

Warm glow of giving to appease conscience
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First Published: Wed, Oct 14 2009. 02 27 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Oct 14 2009. 01 33 PM IST
It is the grubby faces at the traffic signals that are probably the most difficult to ignore. They plead, cajole, whine and then aggressively thump defeat at your half-inch thick glass window. The driver turns to see if the glass has been scratched. To yell at the dirty little bundle of attitude who just ran his fingernails across the glass, imagining it to be your face, at that moment of outrage? Or to remember the circumstance that has brought the boy just outside your bubble of comfort? Or to just hope that the signal turns green in the next 5 seconds?
Now the useless mental arguments begin. With yourself. But I earned it. I deserve my money — God knows I worked for it. I did it the honest way. I pay 30% of my income in taxes, surely, the government should take care of these issues. My consuming less will not get them to consume more. These pangs of guilt have no place on my plate. But nothing. No argument wipes away the image of the slum dweller nearby who carries his bottle of water just before dawn, to avoid being stumbled upon as he sits to do his business. Even as we debate the brand of the new shower spout and the new basin style that has lately arrived from Japan, the other reality is just a glance across the road.
The urban mass affluent Indian finds it easy to distance herself from images of poverty in the papers and TV, of Bharat as it struggles at the end of the road ahead, at the end of the power lines, at the bottom of the pyramid. What do you do with this duality of living—a life not very different from an urban mass affluent in countries that have been wealthy for many hundred years, but in a milieu that has mass wealth of a section of population as something fairly new? Where the bulk is yet 50 years behind in all things that money can buy.
It is when the dichotomy becomes stifling that we look for some way to feel better about this huge difference—between crushing poverty and lifestyle needs. So we turn to giving and sharing. If earlier our giving was to appease the gods (a bulk of Indian giving goes towards religious causes), the urban mass affluent is only just beginning to experiment with conscience, giving to causes that are near to our areas of interest or guilt.
What to give then becomes something to grapple with. Is writing a cheque enough or does it take personal involvement to feel better? How to, whom to and how often to give quickly emerge as the big roadblocks to the intent to give. Is it better to fund a cause deeply or does it work to spread out your money and time so that the money and time goes further?
As we grapple with all of these, we quickly discover that it is hard work to give money away. But we persist. For giving—time, money, and possessions—are the guilt parachutes that the urban mass affluent use to live the duality of our circumstance. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
Research labs working to map the brain and its reactions to money show that this is actually true. Giving and sharing does make us feel good. A 2007 study reported in the journal Science (http://bit.ly/14Zkpz) titled “Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations” by William Harbaugh, Ulrich Mayr and Daniel R. Burghart, documents experiments on participants who were given $100 each and then underwent brain scans as they saw the money go to charity, as part of their tax money or/and directly.
The research shows a “warm glow” (go to http://bit.ly/2Xvlpn to see the brain patterns) triggered by chemicals released by the brain at the moment of the money transfer. For direct charity transfers (not channelled through taxation), the “glow” was larger. We feel good when we give. It makes us feel connected to others. It enhances the community feeling. It appeals to the Maslowian self-actualization search for the next new.
So the brain emits chemicals that make us feel good about ourselves when we give. Isn’t that still consumption in some way? And is it possible to extend that “feel-good” longer than the time it takes to write that cheque or the hour a week recording what you do for the blind? Can we move beyond making compartments of our lives—feel good when I give, don’t feel so good when I am not writing that cheque. Or does the warm glow manage to extend itself month to month as I write that cheque?
At another level, would “giving” stream into our everyday lives if it morphs into not wasting water, food, money and electricity? Would “giving” extend to non-linearly measured attributes such as compassion, kindness and empathy? I have no answers on how to stretch that “warm glow”. I’ll be very happy to hear what you have to say.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy. She is consulting editor with Mint and adviser, Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority, and can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Oct 14 2009. 02 27 AM IST
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