Within 30 seconds of reading this you can get a seven-day weather forecast for Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, or Tokyo. You can learn how vaccinations work, get instructions on how to construct a pig pen, and even learn the definition of poverty… in Japanese. The point being, we live in an information rich world. With 1.7 billion internet users, some of us clearly have access to limitless amounts of information that the remaining 5.3 billion do not. However, when one goes further and looks at the billions who do not even have access a public library, the world’s 72 million children who are not enrolled in school, or 774 million that are illiterate, this information gap becomes almost unimaginable, but its consequences are very real.

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Taylor Corbett is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, pursuing a double major in Economics and Diplomacy and World Affairs. This post is part of a series he wrote as part of an internship with BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra-poor program in Bangladesh.

As an American student in Bangladesh I have quickly learned that there is one question that I inevitably face in every greeting. Wedged somewhere between the handshake and friendly smiles slips the question, “What are you doing here?” It’s something I have been asked by customs agents, taxi drivers, chai wallahs, school teachers, businessmen, village leaders, and even friends. In Bangladesh this is a completely justified question. With virtually no tourism industry and monsoon season fast approaching, many wonder why someone would come to their country to tromp around isolated villages for days at a time. The simplicity of my response has, thus far, never failed to solicit a smile. “I have come to learn from you,” I always tell them.

The context of my response can be found eight months prior as I read Nicholas Kristof’s column titled “More Schools, Not Troops.” In his column, Kristof compares the different developmental paths of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 30 years since their partition in 1971. Pakistan, choosing to spend its aid dollars on military spending has come to face a militarized and divided society. In contrast, Bangladesh has chosen to focus on educational and societal development, which Kristof argues, has led to healthier, better educated, and less radicalized society. He went on to attribute this progress, in part, to an NGO called BRAC for their education and development initiatives. As an international relations and economics major, studying how development organizations can provide effective solutions to pervasive transnational issues (such as terrorism or insurgencies) is my academic dream. Clearly interested, I did what any information hungry American does, I Googled-it.

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Imagine something that has been proven to make you happier, healthier and more confident while being environmentally friendly, and having absolutely no adverse side effects. I am not referring to a new miracle drug or infomercial for aroma-therapy candles, but simply the act of giving. People have long known that altruism carries its own rewards. History is filled with references to the fact that in giving there is also receiving, however, there is still some debate as to why.

In his latest op-ed piece Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex, and Giving, Nicolas Kristof claims that giving leads individuals to live happier, more fulfilling lives (so far so good). Yet, he goes on to argue that because of this giving is, in fact, a selfish act. He demonstrates that we give not necessarily out of our interest for others, but because we feel good doing so.

While I don’t believe it was Kristof’s intent, he has fed the flames of an old debate, that volunteers and philanthropists aren’t out to help others, but to feel good about themselves. As an economics student I have heard this argument before, that of “Homo Economicus”, or the economic man. The premise of the Homo Economicus model is that human behavior is solely dictated by self-interest, or rather everyone is out for themselves. Under this model firemen wouldn’t run into burning buildings, there would be little volunteerism, and as Kristof asserts, charity would be self-interest in disguise. Yet, firemen do run into burning buildings, we do volunteer a substantial number of hours (over 8 billion hours in 2009), and we give an immense amount to charity ($230 billion in 2008 (see Adnan’s article posted back in June). So what’s wrong with this explanation?

While there is no denying that being altruistic feels good, emerging research tells us it is for a completely different reason then self gain. It turns out we give because we are social creatures. In a recent study participants were asked to either keep a $128 research stipend for themselves, or donate part of their stipend to charity all while being monitored on an MRI. When subjects chose to give (and they often did) their brain activated “reward pathways” as if they were fulfilling a selfish act such as eating; however these pathways were stimulated by regions associated with social, not selfish behavior. The conclusion of course being that we are innately driven to give not out of selfish, but communal interest.

Within the greater context of human interaction such a behavior makes sense. Being group-oriented creatures, what tends to be in the interest of one is in the interest of all. Yet, we must admit that sometimes our selfish desires blind us to what is truly best for our community, and ultimately ourselves. Thus, our innate drive to give is our brain’s way of subconsciously combating our selfish tendencies of “Homo Economicus”, which explains why we give above and beyond what is purely advantageous to us. This research also tells us that giving to communal needs can be just as instinctively rewarding as fulfilling personal needs, such as food or shelter. This finally explains why those of us who give often are found to be much happier than those of us who don’t give at all. And, there is no refuting that happy people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

So what does this all mean in practice? The next time you are having a down day, happiness may not be found in another latte or a new pair of shoes, but a donation. Intuitively we know that a latte will only make us happy until we reach the bottom of our cup, but giving someone the amazing gift of a healthy child or an education will give us reason to be happy for days, months, and even years to come. When we focus on giving rather than getting we not only help others, but ironically help ourselves, which we know, buried within the depths of our brain, is the gift of giving.

Kristof’s article:

Jorge Moll et al., “Human Fronto–Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006).

Volunteer statistics: