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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