Happiness Through Charity

Happiness can’t really be bought, at least not through goods. People who buy things for themselves quickly get used to those things and need more things which they quickly get used to. Their cycle never ends. The best way for money to leave your wallet in exchange for happiness, is to give it away. People who gave money as gifts or to charity are happier than those who don’t, and it doesn’t matter how much money you have right now or how much you give.

Lots of us think – and I used to too – that if we only won the lottery our lives would be different. We could pay our bills, take a nice vacation, and be set a life with more mai tais and fewer neckties. It turns out though that lottery winners have a much bumpier life that us non-winners imagine.

I live on a wooded lot in the country and we have dozens of trees – oak, maple, hickory – which periodically fall down. These trees make great firewood and whenever we find someone who needs wood, we offer some of ours. We can do this because we don’t burn wood. Imagine though that we did burn it, and people knew we had all this easy-pickin wood. They might beg  us to share because we have plenty. It turns out that this imagined scenario is exactly what happens to lottery winner.   Generally, they either spend all their money and go into debt, or they get annoyed with badgering friends and lose those friendships. Even non-winners who imagine winning, pre-isolate themselves. One guy who commented on an article about lottery winners declared that he would print a picture of himself sitting in a tub full of dollar bills and from behind his locked doors, send that picture to any solicitors.  What a guy.

The lottery as a yellow bricked road to easy street is a fallacy. There may be a wizard at the end, but he won’t have happiness. Instead, our path to happiness on the wheels of money is through charity. Research has found that people who spend any amount of money on anyone else report being happier than those who get to keep the entire sum of the money.

In a study of two groups of college students, one group was given $20 to spend on someone else, another group $5 to spend on themselves. The group that spent the $20 on others was happier than the other group and it didn’t even matter how the money was spent.  Some students donated the money to an organization that helped people with malaria, others bought coffee for a friend – all giving students were happier.

In another study researchers looked at a set of employees that received a profit sharing bonus. Those who donated any amount of money to a charity of their choice were happier than getting the entire bonus in the first place. The same researchers who looked at these employees also zoomed out to look at giving in America. They asked over six-hundred adults how they spent money and how happy they were. Overwhelmingly those who gave more were happier.

This is all fine you might say, and if I just had a bit more I would give. When these researchers looked at whether income mattered they found that it didn’t. Low income households who gave were just as happy as high income households who gave, and both were happier than high income households that didn’t give.

It doesn’t matter how much you make or how much you give – all that matters is giving something.

Research is one thing, but what about real experiences? In his Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs decided that he too must start to be more charitable. He found a pair of charities and after donating describes his feeling this way, “It’s a warm ember that starts at the back of my neck and spreads through my skull. I feel like I am doing something I should have been doing all my life.”

Donating money also has the ability to make your life greater. If you’re part of a team and spend money on your teammates rather than on yourself, your team will have better results than teams that don’t.   Researchers found this to be true of all types of teams. Pharmaceutical sales staffs who spent money on others on their team had higher sales numbers than those who didn’t. Dodgeball team members who spent money on their teammates had better team records than those who didn’t. From one of the largest industries in the world, down to teams not known on their own block – everyone does better.

Why does giving make us happier, it may be because  we are wired to. Our society exists in a cooperative way, I succeed because you succeed. For adults it’s easy to see. I write these words that bring you enjoyment and you bake the bread that brings me sustenance, it’s a win win. If we’re really born this way though, we need to look not at adults who have had a whole lifetime to be screwed up – but kids. If we’re born to give to each other, even things we value, then it should be apparent early on.

Researches set up an experiment asking children to share a treat with a puppet. The children had happier facial reactions when they shared than when they didn’t share and were still happy when they had to give up something and were left with nothing. There was something happening in the children’s heads then that made them happier than the treats.

Because children are too young – and can’t sit still – scientists switched to adults to record their brain images in an fMRI machine and their pleasure centers lit up like the pinball game, they may as well have been using your ears as the buttons to knock a ball around the pleasure centers upstairs.

How am I being more charitabe?  Well (stammer words, shuffle feet, gaze around).  We do give some to our church and a local organization one time a year – and these do make me feel good, make me feel like I’m making the world a better place.  There might be more in this idea though, about giving, so more to come.

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One thought on “Happiness Through Charity

  1. Pingback: Smiling Challenge | Mike Dariano

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