The golden years glow: Older adults draw more positivity from prosocial behavior

Bjälkebring, P., Västfjäll, D., Dickert, S., & Slovic, P. (2019). Greater emotional gain from giving in older adults: Age-related positivity bias in charitable giving. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-8. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00846.

Summarized by Justin Preston


It has been well-demonstrated that prosocial behavior has positive benefits for both the recipient and the giver. From receiving a “warm glow” after volunteering to the activation of reward centers in the brain, giving and prosocial behaviors have a range of positive returns for the parties involved. Despite our knowledge of how giving and volunteering affects us, there has been very little review of the factor that age may play in how we experience prosocial behavior or what motivates us to act at different stages in our lives. The present study examined how older adults, when compared with younger adults, responded with more positive feelings when acting prosocially and whether those feelings and responses were the main motivator in taking prosocial action.

The authors of this research conducted two studies to investigate these questions. The first study examined the underlying motivations for charitable giving. The second study took a close look at the emotional consequences of prosocial action. The authors hypothesized that older adults would experience more positive affect from giving and that older adults would be more motivated by positive information than negative information when compared to younger adults.


Study 1: In the first study, 353 participants ranging in age from 20-74 years (M=47 years, 49.9% female) were asked to complete a series of unrelated tasks before presented with a donation task. Before being presented with a scenario about a child in need of aid, participants were asked to think about positive feelings you experience when doing something good for someone, the “warm glow” mentioned earlier. After being presented with the photo of a single child and her name, participants were asked to rate to what extent they felt six different feelings toward this child as well as the amount, if any, they wanted to donate to the child.

Participants’ experience of “warm glow” was rated on a scale of 0 – 100, with higher scores indicating greater levels of feeling “warm glow.” In addition, researchers measured sympathy, compassion, worry, upset, and sadness on a 7 point scale.

Study 2: In the second study, the researchers investigated the affective consequences of having made a real monetary donation. Seventy two participants from a community participant pool, ranging in age from 19-89 (M=49 years, 68% female), were told that they could receive the equivalent of $15 for their time. They were also told that, if they preferred, they could give away part or all of the money to a charity. Participants were presented with a picture of a child in need as the recipient of their donation. Five days after their participation, letters were sent to respondents asking them to think about their choice of donating or not, as well as their donation and their emotions associated with the donation.

Researchers received information on participants’ age, the amount of the $15 they donated, how happy, sad, and how much “warm glow” they felt when thinking about their choice, all on a 5-point scale with higher scores indicating stronger feelings.


Study 1: The researchers found that both positive and negative emotions had positive associations with the amount donated. That is, the more participants felt, the more they donated. However, when comparing younger and older adults, results showed that age was positively correlated with sympathy and compassion. This suggests that, as people get older, they get more positive emotion from donating. No significant relationship was found between age and the negative emotions (sadness, upset). In other words, older adults maximize their positive feelings associated with prosocial behavior.

Study 2: Of the participants, 40% of them donated an average of $3.40 to charity (SD=$5.30). Of those who donated, 17% donated the full $15. There were no significant relationships between age and amount donated. Researchers found that older adults who donated felt happier than younger adults, and, conversely, that those older adults who donated felt less sadness than younger, donating adults.


The findings of these two studies demonstrate that older adults are able to experience more positive emotions from prosocial behaviors. These findings, particularly that older adults are less motivated than younger adults by negative emotions, can serve as a consideration for mentoring programs looking to shape their community and volunteer outreach. Positive framing and making the case that older adults gain more from prosocial behavior could help tap into the older adult population when attempting to match youths with adult mentors. While further research needs to be conducted on how these emotional responses play out across a broader range of prosocial activities (mentoring included), these findings serve as a positive step forward in making the case for the benefits of mentoring being a two-way street.