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Giving Your Way to Happiness

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Sex and giving -- what do these two things have in common? They both feel fantastic! In fact, giving stimulates the same part of the brain that is charged up when we have sex. No wonder it's addictive. Like giving, making love reflects our passion, but it often happens in a spontaneous, unplanned way. Given the right person and the right moment, this is a beautiful thing. But with giving? Not so much. Philanthropic dollars are precious resources, so it's our responsibility to consider how we use them carefully. Yet few of us spend enough time doing so.

That's not to say Americans lack generosity -- far from it. Everyday, people from all walks of life exhibit extraordinary generosity -- generosity we never read about in the media. In fact, U.S. individual charitable giving represents an average of about 2 percent of disposable income per household. And, financial donations are only part of giving. In 2012, more than 64 million Americans volunteered their time. Combine the estimated value of financial gifts from individuals ($242 billion in 2011 ) and of time (7.9 billion hours, which have an estimated valued of at least $171 billion), and philanthropy totals almost 3 per cent of GDP -- a powerful force in society.

No, the problem is not what or how much Americans give, but how they give -- often with NO research behind it. Some estimate that 65 percent of individual giving is based purely on emotion. And when you give based on emotion alone, you have no idea what impact your gift has made. How was my money used? Could it have done more to address a social issue? Did you give to the most effective organization? These are questions you should ask before making a gift -- not after. When trying to transform people's lives, good intentions are simply not enough.

So, how do we maximize our philanthropic potential and make our giving more meaningful -- to both ourselves and to those we aspire to help? Here's a basic roadmap. The first step is to think about giving as proactive, rather than reactive. Reactive giving is what you do when you write those annual checks in response to end-of-the-year holiday solicitations. Reactive giving is realizing that many of your gifts are going to causes friends asked you to give to, as opposed to what you're really passionate about. Reactive giving is something you feel you should do -- not what you really want to do.

Proactive giving is what you do when you've found your passion. It expresses your values, interests and concerns. It engages not just your dollars, but also your mind, time, skills and networks -- the philanthropic equivalent of leaning in, rather than leaning back. Most importantly, proactive giving is something you want to do. And, of course, if you want to do something, you're likely to do more of it -- that's when everybody wins.

The second step is to take your giving from sympathetic to strategic. Sympathetic giving is making a donation in response, for example, to a TV ad about a child in need. Your intentions are good, but you're giving into a vacuum, with no way of knowing whether your money will ever reach the child who inspired you to give. Of course, giving is deeply emotional. But supplementing emotion with research makes it more likely that a gift can have a bigger impact. It's like any investment. After all, you wouldn't put funds into stocks or bonds without understanding the potential return. Why wouldn't you do the same when investing in society?

Third, transform your giving from an isolated act to a collaborative strategy. Too often, giving is done alone, putting a check into an envelope or dropping $20 in a collections basket. By pooling funds, your money goes further than that when making an individual donation to a nonprofit. And sharing ideas and knowledge helps you make better giving decisions and build stronger relationships.

Follow these three steps and you will immediately find your giving more fulfilling -- ultimately, bringing you greater happiness every day. For if random gifts give you a surge of gratification, just think what incredible pleasure you could get from making a gift you know is having the biggest impact possible. Remember, giving is one part of your life you can control completely. So, make the most of whatever you have to give and become a truly effective giver -- the benefits to you and to society will be unsurpassable... Plus, just imagine how happy you will be making meaningful gifts and meaningful love every day.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is the author of New York Times bestseller Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Our World (Wiley's Jossey-Bass, November 2011). For a host of resources to make your giving matter more, please visit www.giving2.com.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.