As the old adage goes, “It’s better to give than to receive.” And there’s a good chance that growing up as a child, your parents drilled this into your mind. But even though we were trained to give as children, sometimes we get busy or feel strapped and we fall out of the practice of donating money to charities.
In fact, recent research suggests that the number of households in America donating to charities is decreasing. This is especially true for the middle class.
In 2000, over two-thirds of Americans gave money to non-profits while 55.5 percent of Americans gave money in 2014, according to a philanthropy panel study that is part of the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Similarly, another survey collected by the Science of Generosity suggested that only 3 percent of Americans give more than 10 percent of their incomes to charity.
While giving to charity seems to be diminishing as a practice for average Americans, it’s something we should reinstate. In addition to the tax benefits that you receive from giving to charity, it turns out the spending money on others will make you happier than spending money on yourself. And who doesn’t want to be happier?
In this article, we’ll look at the research and the human aspects of giving and conclude with some practical ways you might consider donating to charity.
What the Research Says
If you google “giving money to others makes you happier,” you’ll find study after study that shows that giving to charity makes you much happier than receiving money. For example, Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues found that those who spent money on others were quite markedly happier than those who spent more money on themselves—no matter what income level the individual had.
In another study, Norton and his colleagues surveyed 16 employees who had received a bonus of $3,000-$8,000, inquiring about their happiness before and several weeks after the bonus as well as how they spent the money. The happiness of the individual was directly proportional to how much money they had spent on others or given to charity.
And while you would think that the amount would impact the feelings of happiness you receive when giving, that’s actually not true, as social psychologist Liz Dunn and her colleagues proved in a controlled experiment. They gave students at the University of British Columbia money that they had to spend on themselves or on another person before 5pm that day.
Even though some envelopes contained 5 dollars and others contained 20 dollars, every time those who spent the money on someone else were happier than those who spent the money on themselves.
How Giving Makes Us Feel
The great British statesman and Prime Minister during World War II Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” If you want to improve your overall wellbeing and life, one of the best ways to do so is giving to charity.
In fact, you’ll even see physical benefits when you do this! A study in 2006 by Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that giving money to charities activates the regions of the brain that are connected to pleasure, social connection, and trust. It is also believed that giving money to charity helps to release endorphins in the brain, producing the giving version of a runner’s high—the giver’s high.
Other studies have also found that older adults who are generous and give money to others tend to be in better health and have a higher life expectancy. In fact, some research indicates that spending money on others or giving to charity can be as effective at lowering blood pressure as medication or exercise. Crazy, right?
You’ll also find an encouragement to give in most of the world’s prominent faiths, including tzedakah among the Jews, tithing in the Christian community, and dana (generous giving) in the Buddhist tradition to which I subscribe. Mahatma Gandhi stated, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Perhaps we could rephrase it slightly and say, “The best way to find true happiness in your life is to serve others, including through giving money.”
The Dalai Lama in Ethics for the New Millennium emphasizes that happiness does not originate in material things (including money) but rather we find happiness when we are compassionately interested in the wellbeing of others. If we are willing to use our material resources to assist others, we will find our truest happiness.
Ways You Can Start to Give (or Give More!)
If this is motivating you to give and you never have before, you might be wondering how to begin. And if you are already giving to charity, we’ll discuss ways to give more.
First, you need to figure out a cause that you’re passionate about. You’ll want to make sure that you’re giving to an organization or individual that you really believe in. This could be donating to some family friends who are missionaries in Ecuador or giving money to ASPCA because you care about animals.
Next, you should figure out how often and how much you’d like to give. Maybe it’s something you’d like to do every month, so you decide to have an automatic transfer from your checking account. Perhaps you’d like to give a big gift at the end of the year to meet any needs for an organization that haven’t been covered throughout the year. Perhaps you want to make a meaningful bequest to an organization that is important to you or your family upon your death. In any case, figure out what’s going to be best for you.
If things are a little tight financially for you, maybe you can save whatever extra cash you have every month and then make a donation at the end of the year. Or you can start small and donate $5 a month to a cause of your choice. Or, if you don’t have the financial resources, you can find a way to offer your time or your talents to organizations that need your help.
Remember that the form or the amount of the gift isn’t what matters at the end of the day. Research confirms that the act of authentically giving to others leads to a happiness dividend in ourselves. Of course, your reason won’t be a selfish one. You aren’t doing it for your own happiness. Still, when you’re giving what you can, you’re sure to be smiling more.
Finally, if you’ve been giving for a while and want to give more, look into other opportunities. Perhaps you could consider giving on National Giving Days like #givingtuesday or send charity Christmas or holiday cards. Maybe you have your regular monthly giving but when other opportunities arise, you’ll give then too.
Whatever the case may be in terms of how much and when you give, remember that your mother was right: “It’s better to give than to receive.” If you find yourself down in the dumps or you just want to live a happier life, consider buying yourself one less Starbucks drink a week and instead buy someone else a Starbucks drink (or just give the money to someone in need). It will literally change your life.