THE BLOG

Want to Be Happier? Give More. Give Better.

11/21/2014 12:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2015
  • Brady Josephson Principal at Shift. Charity strategist, professor and writer.

Did you know that when you make a donation to charity, your brain acts in a similar way to when you are having sex or eating chocolate? It's true. Thanks to fMRI technology, researchers are able to see brain activity when certain acts are taken and in a study on charitable giving when people donated to a worthy cause, the midbrain region of the brain lit up. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for our cravings (food and sex) and pleasure rewards, showing the link between charitable giving and pleasure (Note: To my knowledge no study has been done looking at our brain activity when we have sex AND eat chocolate so I can't say that giving to charity is similar to doing both at the same time. Although, I'm personally volunteering for that study in case you are a researcher who wants to look into this further).

This reward or pleasure response to giving is the physiological reason behind the 'warm glow' or that good feeling you get when you give and why you may choose to spend money on others or charity compared to yourself. But does giving actually make you happier? According to a survey and study by researchers Dunn, Akin, Aknin and Norton, it does.

After finding that people who spent a higher proportion of their income on prosocial spending (gifts for others and donations to charity) compared to personal spending (bills/expenses and gifts on themselves) were 'happier' in a self reported survey, the researchers set up a real-world experiment. Randomly assigned people were put into four groups that were to spend $5 on themselves, $20 on themselves, $5 on others or $20 on others. Those who spent $5 or $20 on others reported being much happier while those that spent money on themselves showed no change in happiness. Also of note, the group that gave away $5 was just as happy as the group that had $20 to give away showing that happiness in giving can be more about the how as opposed to the how much (more on that later).

So giving gives you pleasure and can make you happier. And while there are many reasons why you don't give (here are six of them according to Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save) I want to focus on 5 ways you can maximize your happiness when you do give based on some research summarized in the book Science of Giving: An Experimental Approach to the Study of Charity.

5 Ways You Can Maximize Your Happiness When Giving

1. Give to very specific projects.
When organizations are framed in real tangible ways, you give three times more to support them. And you feel better when you do. When projects are framed in real tangible ways, you give twice as much. And you feel better when you do. When you feel like you're giving directly to programs (and not 'overhead') you give three times as much. And feel better when you do (Note: 'overhead' not being a part of the cause is utter nonsense and destructive to charity overall, watch this great TED Talk from Dan Pallotta if you want to learn more).

When your donation is going to something more concrete and tangible it combats a sense of futility (Will my donation even make a difference?) and makes you feel like you are making a more direct impact. This feeling of personal impact makes you more likely to give and increases your satisfaction level after you have given. An added bonus of giving today is that many organizations use crowdfunding tools that often have clearly set goals with progress bars and you are more likely to give to a project that is over 85 percent of the way to its goal. And, yes... you guessed it, you feel better when you do.

Maximize your happiness by giving to a clear, tangible project as it's nearing completion.

2. Give more frequently in smaller amounts.
Giving, like consumption, has diminishing returns. Giving $1000 doesn't give you 10 times the high of giving $100. Because of this you really should be giving more often in smaller amounts so you get that pleasure high more often. Really good monthly donation programs, like Opportunity International's, where they break down your monthly donation to show you how many people you'll impact are great but they don't give you the actual act of giving every month.

Giving circles, something like Kutoa or a charitable bank account like Chimp (Note: I work for Chimp...) that allow you to give regularly and easily but then decide who to support more frequently are a good hybrid that gives you the ease of transaction but the 'high' of charity selection more often. You can also just be more conscious of supporting more organizations in smaller amounts throughout the year as you come across good opportunities to give.

Maximize your happiness by giving more often, in smaller amounts to support more causes and projects.

3. Give with no strings attached.
Making a donation to get something tangible in exchange can limit that altruistic high you get when giving. To a lesser degree it is the same with purchasing decisions where a portion of proceeds goes to charity. These things can take your decision making from a social market mentality (how can I help others with my resources) to an economic market mentality (how do I get the most utility with my resources). Infusing your economic market decisions with some social good makes you feel better about your purchase but infusing your social decisions with some economic incentives can decrease your happiness.

I'm not suggesting you shouldn't purchase products that have a charitable angle or that you should avoid making donations if you'll get a water bottle or t-shirt back in exchange but if you want to get the highest high for your donated dollar, nothing beats a straight up donation directly to a charity with no tangible strings attached.

Maximize your happiness by giving directly to a charity with no additional incentives.

4. Give when you know who your donation will help.
Child sponsorship programs have been putting this to use longer and better than others and while you may not like commercials showing poor kids with flies around them, putting a name and face to the cause gives you a big emotional boost. You will donate 60 percent more just when there was a name, age and picture of someone who will benefit from your donation. This is what is called the identifiable victim effect where we care more about the one person we know compared to the numerous others that are just numbers.

This is partly why Kiva is so successful because you know who you are helping (they also have smaller project goals with progres bars all over the place!). Or why charity: water tells some individual stories even though their campaign may help 100,000 people.

Maximize your happiness by funding organizations that tell you great stories of one person that your donation will help.

5. Give in public ways.
The puritanical side of you may want to keep your donation anonymous but really you want to be recognized and celebrated for your donation. It's positive reinforcement for a good act and increases your satisfaction of giving. Letting your giving be made public or sharing it yourself also has the benefit of encouraging others to give by letting them know they are not alone (and providing some friendly social competition).

This is one of the reasons the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful - it happened in public for all to see. It added some pressure on those being asked to participate and increased the social recognition for good acts. So let your information go on honour rolls, share your donation on Facebook and don't be afraid to call out your colleagues.

Maximize your giving by sharing your donation in public and letting the charity share it with others.

In Summary...

Giving to others gives us pleasure. It makes us happier people which in turn leads us to give more which makes us even happier and... you get the picture. So as we enter the giving (and consumer) season, think about how you can give more in better ways to maximize your happiness. It may not be as good as sex and chocolate, but you'll be half way there.

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