Inviting: How Hospitality Can Improve Everything

research Mar 30, 2018

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener

“It is the host’s job to make the guest feel at home. It is the guests job to remember that she is not.”—Common Saying

Part One: Welcome

My earliest experience as a well-being researcher was studying the happiness of people living in slums in Kolkata, India. I can vividly recall my first day visiting one of these settlements. I stepped across an open sewer and into a cramped courtyard. Clotheslines spanned the space like prayer flags and children darted in and out of various doorways. A stray dog tore at a discarded rag and—inexplicably—a broken plastic chair leaned against a crumbling brick wall. The lack of privacy, the non-hygienic conditions, and the lack of material abundance were all expected. What was unexpected was the level of hospitality offered to me.

As I conducted my interviews, I was led to a house—a two room concrete shack, really—and was offered both tea and lunch. This was largesse coming from a family that lived on about two dollars a day. As I ate, I was curious if the ability of my hosts to offer me a meal might somehow be linked to their happiness. Indeed, I was already aware of the fact that it is high quality social connections that are among the best predictors of well-being.

After months of interviews and data analysis, I found that the people who lived on the sidewalks, railway platforms, and in slum neighborhoods were neither blissful nor despairing. Despite complaints about their income and housing conditions, they experienced a surprising amount of joy. A closer look revealed that their relationships—their connection with family members and neighbors—helped to buffer them against the full brunt of poverty. I returned a year later and replicated my findings with a new sample.

Even so, I was left with a curious question unanswered: how might hospitality be linked to well-being? I admit that it took me 13 years to circle back and finally collect data on the topic. I am glad I did; the results of that study provide insight into a topic that is important but sometimes overlooked in psychological research.

Part Two: What is hospitality, anyway?

Before describing my research, and revealing how hospitality might help you, it makes sense to linger a moment and provide a definition. Like intelligence and happiness, hospitality can be surprisingly elusive in its meaning. It is easy to understand the general concept, but relatively difficult to articulate a precise definition. Common intuitions suggest that hospitality is a compound-- like water—that is made of several distinct elements. It appears to be an attitude and a set of behaviors. It is one-part generosity, one-part goodwill, and one-part empathy. One dictionary boils down the complication nicely by defining hospitality as the generous reception of guests.

You will notice that the dictionary definition, as well as your own intuition, suggests that hospitality includes generosity. Certainly, providing a meal for dinner guests is generous. It is sharing your resources (food in this case). But splitting your sandwich with a colleague at work is also the sharing of food but would not commonly be thought of as hospitality.  The distinction between these two examples—the dinner and the sandwich—is principally the idea of welcoming another person into your space. This is a critical difference. It shifts the focus from sharing resources (as in the case of donating to charity) to “inviting someone in.” When seen this way, hospitality can be seen in a wide range of examples:

  • Liberal policies on accepting refugees and immigrants
  • Waving a motorist through an intersection when you both arrive at a stop sign simultaneously
  • Picking up a hitchhiker
  • Inviting children to a birthday party
  • Helping to orient a new hire
  • Volunteering at a homeless shelter
  • Hosting a wedding reception
  • Asking a colleague to join the team to work on an important project

It may be that I am taking liberties with the idea of hospitality. In the strictest sense, hospitality may best be defined as housing, feeding and entertaining guests. My point here is simply to emphasize the psychology of hospitality. That, at its heart, hospitality is an attitude as well as a behavior. In an era where political divisions and identity politics often erect barriers between people, a hospitable attitude—especially toward strangers—may be more important than ever.

This modern willingness to engage with others is the endpoint of a long tradition of hospitality through history. In ancient times, strangers—even enemies—were accorded guest rights that followed formal rules. It is easy to see, in the example of desert nomads, why this custom might have developed. Offering food and shelter to a wanderer is a burden, but it is also an insurance policy that others will provide the same consideration to you should you ever need it. In short, hospitality was born less out of largesse than it was mutually assured survival. Over time, hospitality became more formal. Inns for travelers sprung up, as did religious sanctuaries, hospitals, and early versions of modern-day spas. Today, hospitality is largely associated with an industry: the commercial hosting associated with cruise ships, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, B and B’s, and airlines. If nothing else, the long history and current proliferation of hospitality reinforces the notion that this is a concept that is highly and widely valued.

Part Three: The psychology of hospitality

To go about the business of studying the psychology of hospitality my colleagues and I surveyed nearly 200 people from 15 nations, asking them about their experiences of being either a host or a guest. We were interested in the themes that emerged. To give you an idea, the 7 most frequently used words by people to describe hosting others were: friends, food, guest, house, family, dinner, and love. This jives well with how most people think of hospitality—having loved ones to the house for a meal. When we asked about themes related to being a guest, we heard: friends, hotel, comfortable, food and room.  Again, no surprises there. What is noteworthy, however, is the difference between being a host and being a guest. Hosting appears to be a show of love, while guesting—if you’ll permit the verb—is concerned with feeling comfortable (and not a burden). We used these initial insights to create a large survey of hospitality. I won’t bore you with the details but believe me when I say that mostly it included complicated math. (Don’t believe me? Here is a quote from the manuscript we submitted for publication: “chi-square = 2151.459, df = 220, p < .01; CFI = .91, TLI = .90, RMSEA = .074, SRMR =.056”).

What we did—in short—was divided the concept of hospitality into various parts. If you are curious about your own hospitality you can reflect on your answers to the questions related to each of these facets of the concept:

  • Behavior. That is, do you do hospitality? Do you ever have guests spend the night or host a meal?
  • Enjoyment. Sure, you host folks, but do you enjoy it? This is an important distinction because it parses those for whom hospitality is an obligation from those who are intrinsically motivated to host.
  • Morality. Here, we were curious about the degree to which people thought that hospitality is morally desirable. As in, “Is it good to be hospitable?”
  • Work. For most people, the lion’s share of hospitality happens in the home. We were interested in expanding out to other aspects of life. Do you consider yourself someone who engages in hospitality at work? Do you share your resources? Make others feel included, comfortable, and “at-home”? For example, not only do I provide water or coffee to clients who visit me in my office, I also let them know that can take off their shoes, put their feet on the furniture, or borrow a book.
  • The Self. Finally, we were interested in the big question: Do you generally see yourself as a hospitable person?

My colleagues and I used a demographically representative sample of nearly 2000 people from all walks of life to investigate hospitality even further. First, we found that hospitality is related to personality (that’s kind of fun to say out loud: the hospitality personality). Specifically, we discovered that being generally hospitable is associated with both extroversion (being friendly and cheerful) and agreeableness (being trusting and cooperative).

However, we found an even stronger relationship between hospitality and what psychologists call “perspective taking.” Perspective taking is the ability to see the world through another person’s point of view. It is a critical skill for living, and it develops early on. In the classic study on the topic, researchers place crayons in a band aid box in front of a child. Then, the researchers ask, “If I invite your mother into the room, what will she think is in this box?” Small children reveal their naiveté by answering, “crayons.” They have not yet developed the ability to understand that mom will see things differently from their own point of view. Older children will answer, “band aids.” They get that people outside the room were not privy to the crayon switch and will just assume it is a box of band aids.

Adults use perspective taking all the time. We make educated guesses about the intentions of other drivers on the road, about the possible reactions to emails we send, and what gift our partner might like for his or her birthday. It is also at the heart of empathy, and our ability to see difficulties from another person’s point of view. It turns out that perspective taking is critical to good hospitality. The best hosts are those who understand what might make her guests comfortable or uncomfortable. They consider how their house smells, the dietary needs of guests, topics of conversation that ought to be avoided. In short, putting yourself in the guest’s shoes makes you a better host.

Finally, my colleagues and I discovered that hospitality is associated with happiness. Here, I am forced to offer the common disclaimer about correlation and causation. I admit: we do not know if happy people are more likely to host, or if hosting makes people happier. What we do know is this: hospitality and happiness go hand in glove. People who are generally hospitable are also more satisfied with their lives, experience more positive emotions, and suffer fewer negative emotions than their less inviting counterparts. This is a big deal. It suggests the possibility that hosting a dinner might be a happiness intervention, or that having a guest over is a sign that you are feeling good. A win in either case.

Part Four: The hospitality world tour

Remember way back in paragraph four when I told you that it took me 13 years to circle back to studying the topic of hospitality? Well, I tried to make up for all that feet dragging by being ambitious in my subsequent data collection. My colleagues and I were able to collect information from samples of thousands of people from 10 different nations (about 200 people per nation representing the local spread of age, occupation, gender, and so forth). We found some interesting societal differences in hospitality.

In general, the populous Asian countries (India and China), the Spanish-speaking countries, and Turkey all had high levels of hospitality. On the other end of the spectrum, both Australia and Singapore had only the most modest levels. You can see the various scores in Table 1. It is no surprise to see cultural differences in attitudes and behaviors, and hospitality is no exception. Before Singaporean or Australian readers send me hate mail, let’s unpack these findings further.

Table 1. Average hospitality scores across countries


Average Hospitality





















Hospitality represented on a 1-7 score

You’ll recall that one element of our research was hospitality behavior. Here, we asked people to tell us whether they had hosted people in their homes. It turns out that people from some cultures may be less likely than others to host people at home. In Japan, for example, there is a fairly strong line drawn between public and private life. Your Japanese friends might be perfectly willing to meet you for a drink at a restaurant, and maybe even pick up the tab; but less likely to ask you to swing by the house on a Saturday. This is also true of Singapore, where most of life happens in public. People there may be more likely to dine out and participate in shopping and recreation outside the home at greater rates than do those in, say, Canada. The North American concept of the home is that it is relatively large (large enough for public rooms and guest bedrooms), comfortable, and is a refuge from the world. It may be that the Singaporean sense of home is slightly more utilitarian: it is small (no extra bedrooms, dining rooms only to be used for formal occasions, and so forth), often distant from the city center, and is a place to store stuff and get some rest. In sum, it may not be that Singaporeans are less hospitable, but that they are simply hospitable in a different way. Regardless of whether people participate in hospitality in public or private, we consistently found that doing so was associated with happiness around the world.

Part Five: Your parting gifts

In the end, hospitality is a topic to which we can all relate. Each of us has acted as both host and guest. We are all consumers within the hospitality industry, and all able to offer hospitality to others at work and elsewhere. It is here—I believe—that we have the most important lessons from this program of research. It is helpful not just to think of hospitality as a behavior such as arranging a luncheon or a sleepover for your daughter. Hospitality is an attitude, and one that is centrally linked to happiness. You can exercise your own most welcoming attitudes by:

  • Trying to anticipate the needs of others
  • Reminding yourself to look at issues from another person’s point of view
  • Remembering that it is good to be hospitable, and that value makes the burden worthwhile
  • Experimenting with the location of hospitality. It isn’t confined just to your home

Good hosts like to check in on their guests and make certain that they are adequately provided for and having a good time. It is in this spirit that I will check in with you now. To the extent that I have been your host through this exploration of hospitality, I hope your experience has been a good one. I hope I have entertained you and provided a reasonable, if not tasty, intellectual nourishment. I will say my goodbye here and invite you to come back and visit this blog anytime.

About the Author 

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” because his research on happiness and other positive topics has taken him to such far-flung destinations as Greenland, Kenya, India and Israel. Robert works as a researcher, coach, and coach trainer at Postive Acorn. He lives in Portland, Oregon (USA) and rock climbs whenever possible.


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