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The rift in giving

by Dr. Claudia Aguirre

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Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced that he and his wife would give 99% of their Facebook shares — currently worth more than $45 billion — to charitable purposes. This offering of generosity comes in stark contrast to an existing body of research suggesting that higher-income people are less generous than poorer people.

In fact, studies have found that higher-income individuals break road rules and endanger pedestrians more frequently, take more candy from children, feel less compassion for cancer patients, and give less help to strangers in distress. A new study expands on this research with a possible explanation: visible economic inequality. These researchers suggest that wealthy people are less generous only under conditions of high economic inequality — situations which may foster a sense of entitlement among higher-income individuals or even a fear of losing their privilege were resources more evenly distributed.

What all this research shows is that generosity doesn’t depend on the amount of money one has, but on how aware and mindful one is of the disparities between socioeconomic groups.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development , which measures income distribution and poverty among industrialized nations, the gap between wealthy and poor in most countries is at its highest level in 30 years. Interestingly, they also found that more women in the workforce lowers income inequality, although women still earn 15% less than men. It’s no surprise, then, that only five of the G20, the world’s largest economies, are in the top 20 most generous countries. The World Giving Index of 2015 measures how much a country’s population donates money to charity, volunteers their time, or spends time helping a stranger. When the results came in, the United States, a country high on the income inequality list, came in second. But Myanmar (formerly Burma) topped the list as the world’s most generous country. A traditionally Buddhist country, Myanmar has experienced decades of military ruling, poverty and most recently, a vote to have a nearly 70-year-old Nobel Peace Prize-winning female lead their country. Religions and politics aside, the fact that it’s been listed as the most generous country is perhaps an example of communities banding together in the absence of aid; an example of solidarity in crisis.

What all this research shows is that generosity doesn’t depend on the amount of money one has, but on how aware and mindful one is of the disparities between socioeconomic groups. And perhaps this awareness is trainable. A recent study showed that, after two weeks of compassion training, people showed more altruistic behavior toward others. Similarly, women who underwent a one-day compassion meditation workshop showed greater prosocial behavior days after their training. While more studies are needed to elaborate on how compassion training makes us kinder, these results suggest that compassion can be cultivated through mental training. From the escalating gun violence to the ostracized and displaced populations worldwide, all these problems suggest that our global community could use more compassion. We know that exercise is good for the heart. But we’re beginning to see how exercising the mind gives us more heart.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre

Dr. Claudia Aguirre is a neuroscientist and mind-body expert. She earned her doctorate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California (USC), and she recently completed a year-long certificate course on Mindfulness, Yoga and Social Change from Loyola Marymount University. She is also a TED Ed educator, creating various neuroscience-related lessons, which have reached millions worldwide. She researches the latest science around mindfulness and meditation, and communicates these findings to the Headspace audience.