We often expect selfish people to have higher incomes, but a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proves that idea wrong. Turns out that generosity really does pay off.

Science has already shown there’s a link between generosity and happiness: In 2016, research published in journal Nature Communications found there’s a neurological link between the two that’s activated when you even think about taking a generous action.

This research emphasizes even more benefits of generosity, this time material ones: looking at data from both Europe and America, the researchers found a consistent association between unselfish characteristics and higher incomes (as well as, interestingly, having a higher number of children). The result held consistent over time, too: the largest salary increases went to unselfish people.

The study authors speculate that this is because generosity improves social relationships, and these in turn improve economic outcomes, but more research is needed to confirm this theory. What’s clear, however, is that if you want to be happier and get richer, being more generous is in your best interests.

Omri Gillath, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas who studies generosity, explains to Thrive that “feeling secure about your relationships and being pro-social or pro-relational (i.e., generous) are related. You can start working on one and the other will follow,” he says. “So you can ‘fake’ it until you make it, with things like volunteering opportunities, or work on yourself and how you feel in your relationships,” he adds.

Because generosity is a complex characteristic that comes from and affects different areas of your life, there’s a broad range of steps you can take to cultivate it. These will get you started:

1) Focus on helping one or two people every day

Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ph.D., a professor of philanthropic studies at ndiana University and a gratitude researcher, suggests, helping one or two people each day. Incorporating this into your life as a daily practice cultivates your generosity. The people you help could come through a volunteering opportunity, a tutoring program with local kids, or through small donations to causes you care about (you can even help a stranger). But setting out to help people on a daily basis will grow your propensity toward generosity.

2) Really listen when someone is talking to you

Ottoni-Wilhelm emphasizes the importance of really listening in conversations, whether they are with family, friends, or co-workers: “Be truly present in each conversation. When you drift off, remind yourself to be present and listen,” he advises. Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and psychology at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, similarly emphasized the importance of listening to people when they talk. Her research looks at the “ancient ‘caregiving’ system that is critical in terms of whether individuals thrive as a function of their generosity,” she says. Listening helps to do that.

3) Be the supportive friend who reminds others of their best qualities

“Try to give others the support you would appreciate yourself,” Brown suggests. Everyone needs a reminder of why they are great once in a while — be the one to remind them. As Brown puts it, “Be the person who helps others find their best qualities.”

4) Take care of yourself

This is a crucial part of activating the “caregiving” system Brown researches: you need to take care of yourself. “Be as generous to yourself as you are to others,” she says. “See yourself as adorable.” Find time to unplug, eat well, and get more sleep, she suggests.

5) Strive for egalitarian relationships

Brown emphasizes the importance of interacting with others in an egalitarian way. That applies at home and at work: “if you have a family at home, try to involve all in decision-making, and show respect for everyone. Same goes for anyone that you might manage at work,” she says. “Replace the organizational structure with ‘team’-like structure. In general, engage in shared activities whenever you can.”

6) Think of those who have been generous to you

“Think about one or two people who have helped you or given your life meaning,” Ottoni-Wilhelm recommends. “Thinking about other generous people, and the positive effect they’ve had on you, can encourage you to be generous in turn.” In general, focusing on gratitude makes you the kind of person others will feel gratitude towards — and the kind of happy, successful person we all strive to be.

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  • Nora Battelle

    Multimedia Staff Writer at Thrive

    Nora Battelle is a writer from New York City. Her work has been published on the Awl, the Hairpin, and the LARB blog, and she's written for podcast and film. At Swarthmore College, she studied English and French literature and graduated with Highest Honors. She's fascinated by language, culture, the internet, and all the small choices that can help us thrive.