Financial altruism leads to depression

Lending moneyDo you give cash to people who aren’t your direct family or close friends, including people on the street begging for money? A new study in PLoS One suggests that such charitable behaviour will eventually lead to major depression.

Author Takeo Fujiwara found that financial altruism towards someone other than a family member or close friend was significantly associated with the onset of major depression two or three years later. Study participants who provided $10 a month or more to someone outside their close personal group were 2.6 times more likely to develop major depression than less generous individuals.

On the other hand, neither unpaid assistance – for example, helping someone other than family members or close friends with transportation or childcare – nor emotional support – comforting, listening to problems, or giving advice to anyone outside of your close personal circle – was associated with major depression.  In fact, providing unpaid assistance was nonsignificantly associated with protection against depression.

The author suggests that when people give money to others, they expect some sort of ethereal reward – such as reputation or status – in return for exhibiting good behaviours. People providing emotional support immediately and directly receive emotional reward, like a sense of meaning or purpose. This disparity in compensation for altruistic behaviour might explain why those providing emotional support did not develop of MD whereas those providing financial support did.

“The differential effect on major depression between unpaid assistance [and financial support] might be due to the difference of focus, whether outside the self or not”, says Dr Fujiwara. “[P]eople might join a volunteer activity from an achievement-oriented egocentricity, rather than focusing outside the self.”

In addition, people who give money to others might feel overstretched, as financial resources are harder to come by than emotional ones, and guilty when they don’t give, both of which might contribute to major depression.

A previous study, however, has shown that providing financial support to children or grand children protects against the later onset of major depression.  Better focus your financial generosity your close friends and family then.

Takeo Fujiwara (2009) Is Altruistic Behavior Associated with Major Depression Onset? PLoS ONE 4 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004557

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  1. I think the implications of this study are a bit depressing in themselves; for example, the findings suggest that donating to charities might make you depressed.

    It’s worth noting that this was a retrospective study (the author looked back through other people’s data rather than collecting it himself) and the analysis only included 563 people (so is unlikely to be a clear reflection of everyone who is altruistic). Although the results are certainly interesting and merit reporting, they imply a link between financial altruism and depression, not causation. I would say continue being generous, to your grandchildren and to people less close to you.

    As for helping out your grandchildren, the second study I mention suggests that this might be a great way to help alleviate your depression, so you can continue for as long as you can!

  2. As a depression sufferer, and as someone who gives money out to many people not considered “close”, I guess I don’t really fit in with this. I have always been happy to give out monies without thought of recompense, and my overindulgence with regards the grandchildren was preceded by my depression, though perhaps I don’t help myself recover due to my spoiling the kids. Consequently, I won’t kill myself until they reach the age of 18, at least. :)(

  3. Shame he didn’t control for religiosity. Religious beliefs increase the utility of charitable actions because they buy you preferential treatment after death (at least, that’s what believers expect). That might reduce the strain associated with giving to non-kin.

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