Abigail Marsh: "Helping others is essential to experience true happiness".

We interviewed for the series 5G Sustainability Abigail Marsh, an expert in social psychology and affective neuroscience, on the generosity and willingness to help others present in today's society.

Diego Zalbidea-October 1, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes
Abigail marsh

Interview with Abigail Marsh, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Georgetown University. She also holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University in 2004, and conducted post-doctoral research in the National Institute of Mental Health until 2008.

He currently directs the Laboratory of Social and Affective Neuroscience. He is interested in questions as varied as the following: How do people understand what others think and feel? What makes us decide to help others? What prevents us from harming them? It addresses these questions using multiple approaches including, among other techniques, functional and structural brain imaging.

His research has been funded by several National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundationand the John Templeton Foundation. He has received several awards such as the Wyatt Memorial Award granted by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Cozzarelli Prize for scientific excellence and originality, awarded by the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition, he is a member of the advisory boards of the National Kidney Donation Organization and of 1DaySoonerand is a confounder of Psychopathy IsThe aim of this organization is to debunk the myths associated with this disease and to provide society with accurate information, including the symptoms and early signs. 

He has published a book on fear and its universality, titled The Fear Factor

-What makes some people more generous than others?

There are many reasons, ranging from cultural to circumstantial; from personality to lived experiences; from knowledge to biological reasons. These causes are not always easy to separate. Most people are generous when they realize that someone needs some help that they are able to give, and at the same time they perceive that person as deserving of that favor. Thus, most people help close friends and family when they can, but are less inclined to do so when it comes to people farther away. Extremely generous people are unusually generous to anyone for two reasons.

Sometimes it is because they are more sensitive than average to the needs of others; that is, they are really able to realize that someone is in distress. They have a great capacity for empathy. Other times it is because they perceive that all people are worthy of help. You could say they have great humility and a universal perspective. The altruistic kidney donors I have studied seem to have both traits. Among the cultural factors that encourage generosity is a high level of subjective well-being. People who are thriving seem to be more generous. 

-Have you discovered any relationship between gratitude and generosity?

Yes, they are linked through humility. Gratitude is a wonderful way to instill a great sense of humility, because it helps you recognize all the talents and goodness of others, which have so much to do with our own fortune. Humility is the personality trait we have found most associated with generosity. 

-Do you think people are more generous now than in the past?

I believe so. This is largely because it seems that when people prosper they tend to be more generous, and over time more and more people find themselves at higher levels of well-being around the world. I also think that relative to the past, people now tend to have a larger circle of people they consider worthy of their help. Before, people used to have narrower circles of compassion. 

"Now people tend to have a larger circle of people who are considered worthy of their help."

Abigail MarshExpert in social psychology and affective neuroscience.

-Is there much research on generosity?

There is probably a lot more than one might recognize, even if it is not always grouped under the word "generosity." Much research on generosity uses terms such as pro-sociality, altruism, compassion, philanthropy, and even cooperation. All of these themes point to the same behavioral issue which is the possibility of helping others. Doing a cross-sectional search for these terms, I found 45,000 articles with at least one of them in the title published in the space of the last ten years alone.

-Can generosity grow in adulthood, or does it tend to stagnate?

In fact, it tends to continue to grow throughout adulthood. Middle-aged adults tend to be more generous than younger adults for a number of reasons. They tend to have higher degrees of humility, and they are often in a situation in life where they have achieved many of their personal goals, which makes them tend to turn their eyes toward their community. It is also clear that generosity begets generosity. When people experience the joy of giving, it often stimulates them to repeat the experience.

Most of the altruistic kidney donors I work with, for example, have been blood or marrow donors in the past. They find it such a rewarding experience that it lowers the barrier to helping in the future. 

-What is the profile of the most generous people?

An important characteristic is that they are humble. They tend not to see themselves as more important than anyone else. This is different from false modesty or low self-esteem. It means that they do not think of themselves as basically special or more important than anyone else. They are also very sensitive to the suffering of others-when others are sad or frightened, they are good at interpreting it and reacting. But they do not react to the suffering of others with panic. They focus on the other person's needs rather than their own feelings.

This makes them very capable of overcoming their own fear when others are in a situation of need. This is not because they lack fear! I think it is a big mistake to talk here about heroes and altruists. Generally they are not. But they effectively manage to focus on the needs of others and put aside their fears when the need arises. 

-How do I know if I am generous?

The best way to find out is to ask people who know you well. That said, my experience is that people who bother to ask this question tend to be generous! People who aren't generous don't worry about whether they are or not.

-Does generosity depend on people's financial position?

Certainly not. There are many ways to be generous! Help others in need by giving guidance, spare change, encouragement, or even praise. These are all various forms of generosity. Giving someone one's time is one of the most generous things a person can do. In general, it happens that when people feel they are improving their situation, they are more likely to act generously.

I think it is important to emphasize this, because the stereotype that people who do good things become mean and selfish is actually not true. It would be terrible if it were, because it would mean that we would have to choose between doing good and doing good for others. Anyway, this is only one of many, many factors that promote generosity. Generous people can and often do exist, from across the financial spectrum.

-Is there a limit to generosity?

One of the most difficult issues when we talk about generosity arises when we are faced with limited resources. For example, most people do not have unlimited time or money. This means that every hour or dollar spent helping one person cannot be spent helping another. We all have obligations to our own families and friends (and to ourselves!) that necessarily limit the resources we can spend on those more distant from us.

-Why does generosity make people happy?

There are many reasons. One is that we are configured to experience vicarious joy. When we convey joy or relief to others, we cannot but experience joy vicariously. Another reason is that it makes us feel more connected to others to help them, and there are few experiences more rewarding than feeling connected to others. Helping others, moreover, confers on many people a sense of purpose and meaning that is essential to experiencing deep and lasting happiness.

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