Interview with Sabine Loch: “Does donating make us happy?” – The motivations that underlie the willingness to donate

Those who help others strengthen their own sense of self-esteem and find their own lives more meaningful. Helping others makes us happy. This is one of the key findings of a study by rheingold institute commissioned by McDonald’s Germany. But why is this so? How do people actually become donors, and what other hidden motivations underlie their willingness to donate? Lead investigator Sabine Loch has the answers to these questions.

Ms Loch, in your depth-psychological interviews, you found that donors are the happier people. Does donating make people happy, or are happy people just more willing to share?

Sabine Loch: Both of the above. If you grow up in an emotionally stable family, even in childhood you are going to learn the value of giving, of donating. On the other hand, if you have experienced financial or psychological hardship, later on you will be more likely to view yourself as poor and will focus on managing your own life. This is how non-donors also miss out on the concrete moments of happiness that donating unleashes.

What exactly leads to these feelings of happiness?

Loch: Donations strengthen one’s self-esteem; a person feels as if he or she is a better person for having donated. This effect is even more pronounced in the case of helpers with very concrete social involvement. These people view themselves as pillars of society. On the other hand, donors are also concerned to strike a balance within their own lives. Perceiving poverty and hardship awakens a guilty conscience that can be numbed with a recurring payment order. This makes a donation a kind of unconscious offset that affords them more carefree enjoyment of the abundance and wealth in their lives.

If there are such positive side effects to donating, how can non-donors become donors?

Loch: In stable families, donating is essentially a part of the process of growing up. Adolescents have a sense that, as they age, they will ‘ascend’ to the group of donors as they begin assuming responsibility. Some even donate a portion of their very first salary payment.

So does it make sense for organisations that are funded by donations to become involved in-depth with children and teens?

Loch: It certainly does. If you haven’t grown up with the topic of donating, you first have to realise the benefits of donating to your own sense of well-being. This might be a lengthy process. So it makes a great deal of sense for donation-funded organisations to pay even more attention to children and teens – to the stage in life in which people’s basic willingness to help out is formed.

In previous studies – on behalf of Plan International, for instance – you studied exactly this phase of life. What are the particular distinguishing features of this stage in life?

Loch: The gaze suddenly broadens during adolescence. But this also confronts them with relatively unfiltered news reports of war, poverty and environmental destruction. This is too much for some, and they try to isolate themselves as a result. Others jump on board and want to help: want to save the world. The beautiful part about this is: at this age, they actually believe they can. This is where aid organisations have an excellent opportunity to channel youth involvement in small projects and thus keep young people on board in the long term.

rheingold Macht spenden glücklich?

In other words, if a person helps once, they will continue to do so in future?

Loch: That would be nice, but it’s not quite like that. Time and again, there are segments a person will use above all to cope with his or her own life – when entering the career market, for example. A person’s willingness to help out is reactivated once everyday life leaves more room to do so, or in response to a special event. This is a bit like the ties to churches that we have also investigated. Those who have had a positive experience with the church as children will return to it as adults, even after long periods of abstinence.

In your study, you drew a distinction between helpers and donors. What unites them, and what sets them apart from one another?

Loch: The two groups have a dream in common: they want to save the world or make it a little better. Helpers want to get up very close, this process very specifically in everyday life and share in the suffering. Donors tick differently in this respect. They identify with overarching objectives – such as environmental protection or hunger relief – and then delegate action on their concerns to an organisation. In this way, they grant themselves permission to distance themselves from the need.

Does this also mean that potential donors would prefer not to see the hardship – on the organisations’ advertising posters, for example?

Loch: Not necessarily. The campaigns must strike a very clear balance between the suffering depicted, on the one hand, and the suffering alleviated on the other. Too much misery activates a reflex to shirk away from a situation. But if poverty is shown in a too soft of a focus, the impetus to wanting to do something to help is missing. With our depth-psychological interviews, we can see quite clearly where people situate this boundary between the two extremes.

What is the specific benefit of the depth-psychological interview where this topic is concerned?

Loch: Donating is a topic that generates high social pressure. In practical terms, this means that short surveys or lists of boxes to tick tend to gloss over quite a bit. With the intensity of depth interview – each lasting at least two hours – people really mentally let their hair down and exhibit their true motivations.

The rheingold expert

Sabine Loch

Sabine Loch

Sabine Loch is Senior Project Manager and has been working at the rheingold institut since 2005. Her focus is on fundraising, food and trade.